09. 21. 2018. 15:28

Bébi Vadnai

An excerpt from Géza Bereményi's new novel

That was something Bébi would not contemplate though it cost her life. No. She could not even imagine herself telling a lie. - An excerpt from the new novel in Peter Sherwood's translation.

GÉZA BEREMÉNYI

BÉBI VADNAI

2.

 

Éva Vadnai was born with darling locks of platinum blonde. Her father, an outgoing and well-liked professor of medicine at the university, gave her the pet name Bébi, and this subsequently caught on in the palazzos around Andrássy Avenue. From her earliest years she was an habitué of the sophisticated circles where she was lightheartedly dubbed "the Belle of Budapest". She was an only child. She came into the world as an unexpected gift to her parents after her brother's death in infancy, and her elderly father would take the clever and captivating girl along with him on his social calls, to tea-parties, even to thés dansants. At first they would be accompanied by Mrs Vadnai, but later, as Bébi became increasingly dernier cri, her mother preferred to remain in the Neo-Renaissance palazzo the family had inherited, and allowed herself to fall prey to depression. Tout Budapest knew them; they lived directly opposite the Opera and – all praise to her private tutors – father and daughter would converse in French and German, so society wags sometimes also called Bébi, with a touch of irony, the Mistress of the Castle.

The nightclub known as the Moulin Rouge, famed for its world-class entertainment, was in the vicinity. After her father's death this became Bébi's permanent stamping ground; it was here that she held court and here her admirers awaited her nightly if she happened to be elsewhere.

Though the years came and went, as did the people, each more fascinating than the last, and with them the happy times at the spas, Bébi's hair lost little of its sheen. While she applied a great deal of rouge to her cheeks, she used hardly any foundation, in order to show off the dazzling white of her skin. For, of her numerous gratifying attributes, it was her skin that was Bébi's pride and joy; what made Bébi so attractive was her glow. Of her eyes, her hair, her skin. And she made every effort to enhance all these features by keeping to clothes in unshowy, dull colours. She decided, as she set off for her first communion and contemplated herself in the mirror: no, never again. At her father's expensive, well-attended funeral, she found that mourning black showed her off somewhat less disadvantageously, because it emphasised her eyes and her general look; however, what made Bébi stand out, her radiance, was something that the black apparel buried nastily. She considered it was a haggard caricature of a face that stared back at her from the mirror. She did not yet appreciate how radiant her face, too, already was. She could allow herself the luxury of going about with her head held high. Even when viewed from the rear, her propensity – which proved to be so dangerous to herself – to brook no falsehood was quite striking. That was something Bébi would not contemplate though it cost her life. No. She could not even imagine herself telling a lie. Even though she was born in an age when her secret weapon, her feminine charm, was in steady and, soon, in absolute decline, and hardly ensured the most important thing, survival, in the confrontation with the power-crazed in this world.

Until her father's death at the end of 1942, no more than three young men figured in Bébi's life, though public opinion fancied there could have been many more, as there were contenders aplenty.

The first was Lulu, her childhood playmate. Then came Carl, the Swedish attaché, followed by Tipshi, the lawyer who had fled Transylvania. All three wooed her ardently. And – perhaps it is not entirely relevant at this point, but then, at this point, is anything not relevant? – they were good-looking and accomplished dancers. One dalliance followed the other, single file, and with the passing of the years each break-up left a steadily more indelible impression. Even the middle one, Carl, who went as rapidly as he came, proved in time to be incurable. They never let Bébi forget them.

Lulu's father was one of Professor Vadnai's good friends. The two families saw each other regularly. The fathers delighted in each other's wit; both came from wealthy families that had converted from Judaism at least a century earlier. Among their ancestors they counted merchants, factory owners, army officers, doctors, bohemians and poets, whom marble vaults awaited in the national cemetery. They were very well connected, shared information with each other, and were confident there was no historical situation whose outcome might catch them unprepared. They attended concerts and went to the theatre, intellectual excitement became their meat and drink. And they were genuinely likeable. Lulu, too, adored the professor, though he was hard to please. And, like Bébi, an only child. This was perhaps their mothers' fault, though both families longed to have many children.

The families both ran large households, though what the two children enjoyed most were the more intimate gatherings. During these, when they were visiting each other in the magnificent rooms and the staff was about to start serving, the two children would suggest that they now go off and play. "By all means, off you go", the good-humoured parents would say encouragingly, as they knew what this was all about. Bébi and Lulu could go off, hand in hand, to some hiding place, and play doctors and nurses. They were now at that age.

And the parents would exchange conspiratorial glances, taking pride in their youngsters' burgeoning sexuality; they strove assiduously to protect them from unnatural feelings of guilt and the disapproving views of the household staff, who came from a different culture. In this respect the parents of Bébi and Lulu were not inhibited by the moral constraints of their age. Both families regarded sexuality as an untrammelled, useful, and joyous game; they thought sexual experimentation would do their offspring a great deal of good. And of course they longed for grandchildren. They also hoped that such erotic encounters would help develop lifelong feelings of trust between Bébi and Lulu. The parents impressed on the children the need, when they went off to play, to ensconce themselves well away from the eyes of their uncomprehending staff.

 

*

 

What role, it might be asked, did the gathering clouds of war play in all this? In Bébi's later view, none at all. At the time, the thought of war was but a vague dalliance on the horizon, one of many such, an uncertain prologue from faraway powers, not even the prelude to any major action. An international conjecture of some kind. Though in Budapest not even that. As far as the world of Bébi and her friends was concerned the notion was incapable of lodging itself even in their subconscious. Hungary – as Dobrovics later put it to Bébi – in those days hovered in its own peculiar void.

And as for what happened in the children's rooms, hidden behind the wardrobes, out of sight of the staff, when they gazed upon each other and touched each other, that was essentially, as it later turned out, how that mutual trust was forged, the trust that would last all their lives. The simultaneous wonderment of each of them, at themselves and at the other, was accompanied by a matching sense of joy. The exudation of the feral fluids that they stumbled on, and the spasms they experienced, they accepted compassionately and serenely. They encouraged each other with terse words and mutually satisfied every curiosity.

Then they would wash their hands, brush their hair, and return thus, flushed, to the biggest room in the house, where the adults were to be found. For their part, just as if their children had returned from their holidays, they welcomed them in the best of humour. Bébi then picked up a bottle and poured her father his obligatory French cognac. Everyone knew that Professor Vadnai was passionate about his cognac.

 

*

 

Lulu and his family later moved to Argentina. This happened after the first declarations of war in Europe, and was followed by uninterrupted exchanges of letters.

Bébi wrote to Lulu about how she was a habitué of the Moulin Rouge, and how many friends and acquaintances she had in every corner of Budapest. She provided a detailed character sketch of every one of them, like some proud collector. Then Lulu asked her tout court whether there was any truth in the rumours that had reached Buenos Aires, that Bébi had taken up with the young attaché at the Swedish embassy, and why did he have to hear this from someone else? Surely it was nothing serious? To this Bébi responded that it was, truly, not an affair of the heart, just a relationship between dancing partners. But by the time her letter reached Argentina, matters had taken a more serious turn; to be more precise, they had burgeoned into a passionate affair. At least as far as Bébi was concerned; Carl, the Swedish lad accredited to Budapest, did all he could to press his suit.

During one excursion by car he took the opportunity to ask for his companion's hand. "My mother thinks you're delightful." "I'm being transferred to London in April. How would you feel about getting married there?" "It doesn't matter. Even in that case it's a no. Why? You are too square for me, Carl. I have other dreams. What exactly? My father's grave is here, too. I'm staying, Carl."

In one of her letters Bébi tried to reassure Lulu by stressing that the nature of their relationship was to do with status: simply put, it made her feel good to be seen with Carl. It was generally held that she and the Swede were a dream match; they were, as they say in Budapest, divine together. They were written up in the daily press, with photographs, their glittering, elegant appearances even made the fashion magazines.

Bébi readily admitted that at this time she gave herself airs and graces. Her mother, and her increasingly grave depression, she consigned to the care of various sanatoria. This was easy enough for her to do, since the death of Professor Vadnai suddenly brought her a substantial legacy.

Before the departure of Carl and the arrival of Tipshi, Bébi weighed things up one last time. After all, she was now 22. But she could not see herself as a diplomat's wife. During their final cabriolet ride Carl as usual took photographs of her in his preferred milieu, the countryside. He took picture after picture, expounding the while his view that he wanted children, in fact several, and with Bébi. "No, Carl. Do try to understand. Why? Because I'm not in love with you. Don't take offence, it's not your fault, it's mine." They were conversing in German. "I have only ever loved one man so far, my father. I'm incapable of loving anyone else. It's no easier for me, honestly. You didn't know? Because I don't let it show. Very well, I'm cold. I agree. If that's how you want to take it. I'm not going to offer myself up on that altar, my dear."

She wrote to Lulu about the proposal, and that she had turned Carl down, and also that he had left Budapest, accredited not to London but to Berlin, whence it transpired that the Swede had suddenly disappeared without trace.

 

*

 

Meanwhile, Tipshi had made his appearance among the regulars at the Moulin Rouge. To be more precise, not only there but, earlier, on Andrássy Avenue, where he had first paid a visit to the palazzo, as a fashionable lawyer and the trusted administrator of the estate, and that same day Bébi had invited him over to the Moulin Rouge, her regular haunt. And there it turned out, quite spectacularly, that he was already well acquainted with most of the crowd. He had a cabriolet just like Carl's, Bébi's blonde locks could continue to waft in the wind.

Tipshi had originally come over to Budapest from Temesvár in Transylvania, and managed to find his feet in the capital with impressive speed. This young man with the mesmerising, shining eyes was a past master at fitting in, the quiffs in his gelled, coal-black hair appeared to have been moulded on. He was well-mannered yet quite frivolous. On the other hand, one could not be entirely sure if he was not, perhaps, playing the part of a cynic to impress Bébi and appear acceptable to her. Because about that time Bébi's behaviour was increasingly getting out of control and news of this had done the rounds in the Budapest night.

It was amusing to observe how Tipshi, in public, before the revellers, played 'be my wife' with Bébi, and the girl picked up the gauntlet saying, all right, dear Tipshi, but no further than the engagement, whereupon Tipshi whipped out two engagement rings, saying he had inherited them from his late parents. For following their tragic double death, Tipshi had been brought up by his maternal aunt, to whom he was eternally grateful.

The same night the Moulin Rouge hosted a huge ceremony. The orchestra played for them till dawn. And then, even perhaps the same day, Bébi fell pregnant from Tipshi.

This was followed a few weeks later by the game of should I keep it or shouldn't I. In the same venue, naturally, and in front of the same people. Guffaws punctuated the arguments galvanising the séparés. The company managed to shout down even the evening's musical programme, and the affianced couple tried to come to a decision like royalty ringed by their courtiers.

The majority – the contemporary jeunesse dorée, Christians to a man (and woman) – took Bébi's side. In the given situation curettage was the best course of action. So be it.

Throughout Tipshi managed to preserve his jaunty bonhomie, something he lived and died by, yet a seriousness akin to pain could be detected in his demeanour as he expressed his opposition. Keep the child. If Bébi didn't love it, he would.

"Darling," he said using the English word, "think about it. How gorgeous any child of the two of us would be! Does your blood no longer have anything to say about this?"

"My what?" said Bébi, laughing off this piece of nonsense. "What's this case for the defence all about?"

"Yes, indeed. Your blood. When all's said and done, you're a Jew after all. And to Jews ancestry is sacred."

They sat at opposite ends of the oval table, each with their clique. Bébi flanked by the girls, Tipshi by the young men in their dinner jackets, with the champagne flutes, and the bottles in two separate gleaming buckets, laid out between them.

"I'd just like you to spell it out for us, dear heart. Let's have your reasons. Am I not to your goût as a father? Then finish with me, but at least set free this embryo from my person, and let it live. Don't be someone it would hurt me to be in love with." All the while he was making faces to ensure people guffawed. "Or is it your father's death that's made you like this? But surely he too longed for a grandchild. Didn't he? How happy this would make him in the afterlife! Or are you concerned about politics? That the Germans are already in Vienna? Are you afraid? You're never normally afraid."

At this Bébi leaned over, above the glasses and the noise of the English jazz band, and spelled out how she never gave reasons. Because any reason is merely made up, improvised in the moment. Because years later you realise that, in any event, you took the decision not for the reasons you imagined all those years ago, but for some other reason. And then years after that you concoct a third explanation, and so on and so forth. In the end, the why remains shrouded in mystery. And it really doesn't matter. So she, Bébi, is not prepared to launch into explanations, only to state her convictions. She, Bébi, wants an abortion and that's that. Let the why remain a mystery to her, Bébi, as well. Or would he prefer she quickly came up with a lie? Surely not even Tipshi would expect that of her.

Everyone present knew that her fiancé would lay down his arms before Bébi. Not just then and there, in the Moulin Rouge, but at any time and anywhere.

"Will you find me a doctor yourself, or will you leave it to someone else? There's not a moment to lose."

 

 

Translated by: Peter Sherwood