Many a true word is spoken in jest

L’Epouse rebelle (1934) by Zsigmond Móricz (1879-1942). Translated into French by Suzanne Horvath. Not available in English (I think) Original title: Az asszony beleszol, which means “She says” according to Google Translate.

Zsigmond MóriczImre and Ilonka Vigh are a young married couple in Budapest. The book starts on March 28th, 1933. Imre is a journalist of what we call in French the “faits-divers”. There’s no exact translation of that word in English, I think. It means that Imre writes articles about odd stories, murders, conjugal disputes and various accidents. He’s often out late at night, chasing stories for the newspapers he works for. Of course, Ilonka doesn’t work and spends all her time in their apartment, cleaning, cooking and waiting for him to come home. The country, like the rest of the world, is in a deep economic crisis. Ilonka juggles with money and indeed, money is a central character of this falsely humoristic novel.

The novel opens on a special night where Imre witnesses something intriguing in his own building and starts investigating to dig out a juicy story. That same night he receives four free tickets to go to the theatre. When he comes home, he says to Ilonka that they should go and invite her aunt and cousin who help them financially. It’s a way to thank them for their generosity.

Ilonka immediately points out that they don’t have the money for this evening at this time of month. Indeed, the tickets are free but they would still have to pay for the tramway to go there, the cloakroom at the theatre and sweets for the family. Despite Imre’s wishes, she decides to offer the tickets to a neighbor, Mrs Véghely, so that they don’t go to waste. What seems like a nice gesture is actually a poisonous gift since the Véghelys face the same problem as the Vighs: they don’t have the money for all the side expenses attached to going to the theatre. The tickets make their way to the Schultheiszes. The husband is a civil servant, he should have the money. But are they really better off? Follows a comedy in the apartment building where women meet and try to place these tickets somewhere.

It is funny to witness the circus created by these four free tickets. But it allows us readers to enter the homes of several families in the apartment building. It is mostly occupied by bourgeois families and we discover everything through the wives’ point of views. Zsigmond Móricz discloses the tricks they use to save money, the consequences of the crisis on families from all social circles. The story of the tickets that nobody wants is a pretext to show a society that has reached the end of its rope. What should be an opportunity –free tickets—turns into a nightmare. These tickets aren’t a gift anymore but a burden because money is so tight that finding the cash to cover the extra-expenses to enjoy the evening requires too much energy. And at the same time, they have too much pride to cut-off these expenses and see the play without the extras. Zsigmond Móricz mocks these bourgeois who are too attached to their social status to see how ridiculous they are.

All the families struggle with money and it weakens the husbands’ place in the family and in society. They’re used to having all the power for being the provider and protector of the family. They also run the State and the institutions. The wives accepted their position in the household as natural. Husband and wife had a role and they played by the rules. As the economic crisis lasts and worms its way in every aspect of their lives and as the end of the tunnel is yet to be seen, the wives start questioning their husbands’ “natural” position in society. They go down from their pedestal: they don’t know how to solve the crisis, they don’t know how to keep or improve their income and they fail to provide for their family. So why should they rely on them? Why should the wives accept their submissive position? They start to rebel.

L’Epouse rebelle would make an excellent film: it is a situation comedy with twists and turns, misunderstandings and funny dialogues. And yet it shows a realistic vision of the crisis. Some passages are painfully contemporary like this one:

– Les jeunes gens d’aujourd’hui n’ont ni emploi ni avenir. A trente ans, ils ne travaillent pas encore. Un technicien diplômé a trente-deux ans et il n’a pas encore gagné un sou ; de notre temps un homme de trente-deux ans occupait déjà un poste de dirigeant, on le prenait presque pour un homme âgé.

– Et ça ne changera jamais ?

– Crois-moi, Gizi, ici il n’y a aucune perspective.

– Tu seras d’accord avec moi : on supporte n’importe quoi, à condition de pouvoir espérer un meilleur avenir pour ses enfants, mais sinon ?…

– Tout ce qu’on peut faire, c’est les pousser dans les études. Mais quand un garçon ne trouve pas de travail, ce sera bien pire encore pour les filles.

– Young men have no job and no future. At thirty, they don’t work yet. A technician with a diploma is thirty-two and has never earned money. In our time, a thirty-two year old man had already a managing position. He was almost an old man.

– And it will never change?

– Believe me, Gizi, here, there’s no perspective.

– You’ll agree with me: we can bear anything as long as we can hope a better future for our children. But otherwise?…

– All you can do is push them to study. But when a boy doesn’t find a job, it will be even worse for girls.

Or this one, where a housekeeper talks with Ilonka:

– L’argent…Çui qui veut du pain, la ville lui en donne à gogo. On le distribue par kilo ou par deux kilos…Et il suffit d’aller à la soupe populaire pour avoir des déjeuners comme c’est pas croyable. Il ne faut rien d’autre pour les avoir que d’être en chômage. Moi, Madame, j’y ai pas droit, parce que moi, je travaille.

– Mais ne vous montrez pas si cruelle. On leur en donne parce qu’ils sont dans le besoin. N’enviez pas un tel pain.

– Pourquoi ? J’suis pas dans le besoin, peut-être ? C’est justement mon malheur. Comment que je peux leur expliquer qu’entre mon mari et un chômeur, c’est du pareil au même ?

– Money…If someone wants bread, the city gives him as much as he wants. It’s given away in kilos…You just have to go to the soup kitchen to have incredible lunches. You need nothing else that to be unemployed to have them. Me, I can’t have them because I work.

– Don’t be so cruel. They give them bread because they’re in need. Don’t be envious of such bread.

– Why not? Am I not in need too? That’s my misfortune. How can I explain that between my husband and an unemployed person, it’s all the same?

Sounds familiar, eh? It reminds me of many discussions I’ve heard about poor workers and workers who earn just enough to be above thresholds to receive social benefits but still struggle to make ends meet. It’s a bit disheartening to discover something like that in a novel from the 1930s, especially when you know where this economic crisis led Europe.

In the foreword of the book, they say Zsigmond Móricz could have immigrated to the United States. He chose to stay in Hungary and write about the life there. His tone is light but his lightness is deceitful. Many a true word is spoken in jest could be the symbol of this book that uses comedy to describe a very serious economic situation for the population of Budapest.

I heard about L’Epouse rebelle on the French blog Passage à L’Est. Thanks Bénédicte, that was a find.

This review is my first contribution to Stu’s Eastern European Lit Month.

 

 

  1. March 14, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    The title in Hungarian would mean something like “the woman intervenes”, which suits the plot better than the French title (same with the cover, though it’s a nice picture). I’m glad you liked it; it’s certainly one of the lighter books I’ve read by him – in tone, at least. Social commentary is something he does a lot but often in a rather more cynical fashionm I’d say. English readers wanting to try some Móricz for themselves should look for “Relations” and “Captive Lion”, both published by the Budapest-based Corvina publisher.

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    • March 15, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      I agree with you: I found the French title a little odd for the book. Usually, when I have a doubt about the translated title, I check it in other translations (like Italian or Spanish) to see if it sounds the same. Then I assume it’s the original title that’s been translated. Here I couldn’t find it so I used Google translate.
      “the woman intervenes” is better because that’s exactly what Ilonka does. She decides that women should have a word about what’s happening in a family and should take matters in their own hands since obviously, the men don’t make it.

      I also agree with your comment on the cover. It’s a nice picture but it’s not really related to the plot.

      Thanks for leaving recommendations for books by Móricz in English.

      Like

  2. March 15, 2015 at 11:06 am

    This sounds great, Emma. I like the way the author uses the tickets as a way of raising all these questions about the society. As you say, it’s a story that could transfer to a visual medium. I could see it working very well as a play: relatively small number of key players; a contained setting. Sounds perfect for the stage.

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    • March 15, 2015 at 10:37 pm

      It would be a great play for the part inside the appartment complex. There’s a second plot strand about Imre’s scoop and this one would be more complicated to make into a play. (outside locations, several places…)

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  3. March 15, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    I never heard of Zsigmond Móricz although Hungary is Austria’s neighbour today and was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918… This novel sounds so interesting, witty and funny that it seems a real shame that it’s quite forgotten today and not even translated into English. According to wikipedia several books of this author have been translated into German, but I can’t make the link between any of the titles and the original German. Thanks for the review! A great one as always.

    By the way, Google translate wasn’t exact. You certainly can translate Az asszony beleszol as She says, but really it is The Woman Says. My Hungarian is – to put it mildly – improvable, I know enough of it, though, to see that it’s not just personal pronoun and verb.

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    • March 15, 2015 at 10:42 pm

      I hope you can find a copy in German, it’s a great writer. I don’t know how many novels he wrote but he was quite famous in his time.

      “I can’t make the link between any of the titles and the original German” It happens to me sometimes too, not with German but finding the corresponding title between French and English when it’s a book translated from another language. I wish they put original titles on online bookstores. It would be helpful.

      Passage à l’Est (who speaks Hungarian) says the title means “The woman intervenes” which is the best translation for the book. Ilonka is the woman who intervenes.

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      • March 16, 2015 at 1:32 pm

        Yes, it would really be helpful, if original titles would be displayed in online bookshops… or at least in all book-related articles on wikipedia. I must say that in general the German-language sites are a lot better there than the English ones, but in the article about Zsigmond Móricz there are only the German titles including some ISBN numbers.

        So Passage à l’Est says that the correct translation should be The Woman Intervenes… I don’t know enough Hungarian to contradict. It occurred to me only long after I had written my comment that it was “beleszól”, not the more common “beszél” which definitely means “speak, talk, say”.

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        • March 17, 2015 at 10:58 pm

          The French sites are terrible in that respect.
          I like The Woman Intervenes : it suits the novel.

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  4. March 16, 2015 at 12:47 am

    Too bad this isn’t available in English. I’ve read a few (just a few) Hungarian novels and really liked them.

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    • March 17, 2015 at 10:53 pm

      You’d like this one. It’s so frustrating that it’s not available in English! (just like the Karinthy I just wrote about. It’s an even bigger loss)
      I think I have a thing for Hungarian lit. I’ve liked or loved everything Hungarian I’ve read. It’s an amazing country for literature. Like Ireland, they must have the highest rate of writer per inhabitant. The Irish are lucky to speak English in that respect. It grants their literature a wider audience abroad.

      Like

  5. March 17, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    This sounds wonderful. What a great idea to use those tickets to address so many issues and introduce different families. I’d really love to read this.

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    • March 17, 2015 at 11:11 pm

      It’s out of print but you can find used copies.
      I think you’d like it.

      Like

  6. April 23, 2015 at 11:12 am

    It is a brilliant concept. This isn’t available, but looking on Amazon others by him are.

    Agreed on Hungarian literature. It’s truly a world class body of work, quite extraordinary.

    Like

    • April 24, 2015 at 8:59 pm

      I know it’s a shame this one is OOP in French (I have a used copy) and not available in English.
      It’s full of little details of the people’s way of life during these years. It’s really interesting for that too.

      There seem to be an endless pile of great Hungarian works to explore…

      Like

  1. April 19, 2015 at 10:47 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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