Sándor Márai: Bebi, vagy az elsö szerelem [Bebi or First Love]
Our narrator – about halfway through the book we learn that he is called Gaspar – is a fifty-four year old school teacher of Latin, living in the Hungarian town of Z around 1912. He has never been married. The only time he had a relationship which looked as though it might lead somewhere was with a woman called J. It did not work out. He occasionally goes to the local brothel but that is all his sexual activity.
He does not have any real friends. He goes regularly to what he calls The Circle, which seems to be some sort of social club but only for casual chat. He gets on fairly well with his fellow teachers but is not close to any of them.
He has a strict routine – getting up at 6 a.m., doing the same things every day, including his meals and his daily walk. However, now he is getting older, he has suddenly finds he wants to get up later, so he gets up at 6.30 a.m.
But old age has changed him in other ways. This morning, lying in my bed, I realised that I was alone. Not a soul, not a single person in the world which whom I would like to share something. In short, he has realised that he is entirely alone in the world and he is not too happy about it.
Going to the club he sees an advert for a holiday to Brazil and it upsets him. Who in the town of Z could possibly want to go to Brazil or could afford to do so? The whole episode triggers in him the realisation that, apart from a brief visit to Lὄcs, he has not left Z for twenty-eight years. A colleague encourages him to take a holiday and, finally, he decides to do so The place he chooses to visit is Virágfüred, a resort town some three hours by train from Z. It was the place he visited twenty-eight years ago.
It does not go particularly well. The town is run-down and seedy. Indeed, it seems to have had few if any improvements in the past twenty-eight years. The hotel where he is staying is fairly full but there are only three people on their own, including our narrator. Initially, he has little contact with anyone, going for walks on his own or staying in his room when the weather is bad. He has nothing to read – indeed he seems to have more or less given up reading for pleasure in recent years. The enforced leisure has him thinking further of his situation and he does not come to a happy conclusion.
He does, eventually, meet the other single man there, a man called Tamar. Tamar explains to him that both men are ill, suffering from an almost incurable disease and this disease is solitude. Alcohol helps but there are only two real cures – love and God. Neither man is religious and neither man is in love or in a position to fall in love.
Before Tamar leaves, our narrator makes a full confession to Tamar of his miserable life. Tamar is somewhat, but only somewhat surprised. The two men are unlikely to meet again, as Tamar lives in Vienna but our narrator later thinks that Tamar is the only man he knows with whom he could be friends.
During the next few weeks, he reflects a lot on his situation and realises how sad he really is. How to combat his loneliness? Having being opposed to dogs, he now thinks of getting one. He does not. He continues to drag through his life. He lends money to two people but is not sure if he will get it back. He is kindly towards one of his pupils, Madar, who comes from a very poor background. But he continues to comment about how miserable he is.
However the title of this novel is Bebi or First Love. We have no idea who Bebi is. Bebi is normally short for Erzsébet (the Hungarian equivalent of Elizabeth) but, as far as we can tell, there is no-one called Erzsébet in this book. What we do know is Madar seems to be interested in one of his fellow pupils, Margit Cserey. Gaspar has seen them together and this seems to upset him. Is he jealous? Does he feel it is immoral? Does it show him that he has no woman to love or be loved by? He starts being obsessed with this relationship, an obsession that is never going to end well.
This is something of a strange book. Gaspar, initially, is not particularly unusual, probably in the real world and certainly in literature – a solitary man, with no friends, no real interests and no love life. That he struggles with his loneliness and cannot seem to connect to others of either sex, though especially women, is not too surprising. We follow the story entirely through his eyes, which means, we learn of his misery on many occasions as he bemoans his fate and wonders what to do about it.
As mentioned above he tries various methods, all to no avail. It is when he starts getting obsessed with Madar and, especially, his relationship with Margit Cserey, that he does start going off the rails and has us wondering why he is behaving in the irrational manner in which he does. Clearly, Márai is showing us that a man who is alone in the world, who has no friends, no loved ones, not even a pet, and no connection to religion nor, indeed, other social grouping, is likely to behave irrationally. Márai gradually and skilfully builds up this behaviour, leading to the climax, and we keep wondering how and when he is going to do something that will have a lasting effect.
First published in Hungarian 1928 by Pantheon
No English translation
First published in French as Premier Amour in 2008 by Albin Michel
Translated by Catherine Fay
Also available in Polish and Slovak