Authors: Geza Csath
THE DIARY OF
English translation © 2000 by Peter Reich All Rights Reserved
Printed in Hungary
Angelusz & Gold
Rumbach Sebestyen utca 10 Hungary
copyedited by Sarah Barrett
Cover and design by Jozsef Pinter Introduction © 2002 by Arthur Phillips Essay by Dezso Kosztolanyi originally published in Nyugat 1919 Vol 16-17 as Kosztolanyi Dezso: Csath Geza Betegsegerol es halalarol
I N T R O D U C T I O N
by Arthur Phillips
O N T H E I L L N E S S A N D D E A T H O F G E Z A C S A T H
by Dezso Kosztolanyi
C H R O N O L O G Y
by Mihaly Szajbely
1 7 3
We meet Geza Csath (the pen name of Jozsef Brenner) in the fall of 1912, age 25, in the grips of writer’s block, which he is determined to defeat by writing a season’s worth of autobiography. He proceeds to reminisce over the summer just past, a memoir that appears at first to be a candid private recollection of almost ceaseless promiscuity and very occasional medical practice in the spa town of Stubnyafurdo.
We should know, however, that this man who claims to be “inhibited” from writing has recently produced a medical text, a volume of fiction, and the German translation of his monograph on Puccini. However serious his inability to produce more, we are certainly justified in taking his complaint with a grain of salt, and, sure enough, a paragraph later, he writes sixty pages of deft, funny, shocking, psychologically astute memoir. The writer’s block doesn’t seem terribly serious. Did he talk himself through it, or was he merely softening up his readership?
That is the question, because, though the “Notes on the Summer of 1912” compose part of the author’s diaries, it is worth asking whether they weren’t intended to be read by us, whether we are diary voyeurs or invited audience. First, the Notes seem to be rewritten, a summation after the fact, leavened with a degree of detail implying a pre-existing diary. (Such a daily diary seems likely, considering the astounding statistical summaries Csath produces for himself at the end of 1912.) Further, in this retrospective composition, I felt a literary stagecraft, a polished performance, and a full presentation of characters (including the leading man), that Csath’s “real-time” diaries from later in the year do not display. What’s more, on page one, he is already hiding something; we learn only much, much later that at the time of composing this bawdy memoir, Csath was suffering from something far more serious and intractable than writer’s block. In other words, considering his admitted desire for literary fame, it is by no means implausible that he expected his journals would outlast him and would find a readership-admirers like you and me. He may indeed be performing for us, so beware his apparently perfect candor.
With that in mind, we proceed to the performance, the adventures of Dr. Jozsef Brenner, spa doctor and boiling Don Juan-nabe. Make no mistake, this character, this Geza Csath /Jozsef Brenner is an unredeemed bastard. Most obviously he is a philanderer with vast appetites of such untamable ferocity they call to mind the modern notion of sexual addiction. He has betrayed his fiancée, Olga Jonas, within a week or so of arrival. He collects chambermaids, patients, his patients’ daughters, and local peasant women at a pace that would exhaust most men not also fending off tuberculosis and opium addiction. His heartlessness in these love affairs is presented starkly, without apologies. When one of his women loses her job for stealing a shirt to try to please him, he is unaffected to a degree that is almost comical, and perhaps he intends this.
Csath’s is an extraordinary self-portrait, one that is simultaneously introspective and self-deluding. This is a neat trick. (It also calls into question the idea that even the most careful observer can successfully observe himself.) The doctor is sensitive to slights and suspicious of others. He is highly analytical of himself, but uncomfortable with some of the most basic social interactions (shaking hands, determining his social position). He obsessively catalogues his peccadilloes (four bouts of “onania”) and his victories (stop-watched kisses, the ranking of orgasm quality, his sexual recovery time as a function of his current level of “training”). He loathes self-pity, self-justification, and defense mechanisms in those around him, but his own writing is full of self-pity, self-justification, and defense mechanisms.
He is an insecure but also happy-go-lucky rapist, faithless lover and would-be Casanova. He is apparently without redeeming virtues, unless brutal candor and persistently unsuccessful self-inquiry count. Misogynistic and misanthropic, faithless, vain, manic-depressive, arrogant, selfconsciously self-loathing and self-admiring, doctor and quack, he is also very entertaining, especially when hypocritical to hilarious extremes. Of a woman he has just kissed immediately after she has come from intercourse with her now-dozing husband, he notes: “All Jewish women…were…entirely without a sense of responsibility and moral
.” This from a man who has enjoyed a “cruel trio”, in which he has sex with one woman in earshot of his heart-broken previous lover. Later, he writes of another love, “I saw how much this woman enjoyed humiliation, so I gave her her share.” (By the way, this busy summer, it turns out, was a period of which he was proud for having
his tendency to introduce sexual complications into his life.)
For all his fondness for Casanova, his idolatry of his fiancée, and his evident delight at his successes (over women and over impotence), for all the connoisseur’s lip-smacking (his admiration of the “formation of the hips, their transition to the back”), this lover often doesn’t seem to like the women themselves very much. They are “dolts,” “tasteless,” “incapable of moral judgment.” Except for his fiancée, he holds them in supreme contempt for that most unforgivable act, falling in love with him.
At other times, there is an air of irony in his tone, an amusement at his wicked appetites that almost excuses them. It is a very wispy irony and may in fact be a lie, but still, it is difficult not to feel a certain fondness for a man who blames an unwanted second act with one lover on “the unparalleled weakness of human nature.”
Of course, this cad, this hypocrite is something far more. He does not mention it, perhaps out of false modesty, counting on Posterity to have told us before we had ever read the Notes. In case you don’t already know, I will play the role of Posterity: This “villain” is a man of vast gifts. He is a neurologist, painter, composer and music critic, pianist and violinist, playwright, journalist, short-story writer, and a man of superhuman ambition and energy.
I I .
C S A T H T H E C H A R A C T E R , C S A T H T H E W R I T E R
I prefer Csath’s diaries to his stories. In the former, he allows more layers and contradictions to appear. The character of “Geza Csath” has a fullness and a contradictory depth not achieved in the fiction. He is both symbolic and ghastly, but a figure more profound and haunting than the grotesques who people his stories of rape, murder, and animal torture.
In reading Csath’s journals, I thought of the atmosphere of sexual carnival found in Arthur Schnitzler, the viciousness and faux-scientific fetish of the Marquis de Sade, the artistic analysis and reductiveness of Freud. Csath is related (sometimes admittedly) to all of these and to some who came after him, too. The lurking omnipresence of tuberculosis and sanatoria haunts the diaries and the stories, as it does countless other works of the early 20th century, reaching its breathless pinnacle on Mann’s Magic Mountain. There is a more than a passing similarity between the diaries’ Csath and Italo Svevo’s unsuccessfully self-analyzing serial smoker Zeno. And echoes of Kafka abound, most amusingly in the sudden appearance of Mrs. Ilancsy, who, it turns out, after we have heard of countless seductions in Csath’s office, has been a hovering witness to them all.
The journals are full of literary pleasures that the stories lack, such as the gradual appearance of his lover, killer, and nemesis, that most important of Csath’s affairs, who at first is only an initial, P or M, like some Madame X or Lady B from a Victorian novel scrounging for credibility. The course of their relationship makes for gripping reading. At her first appearances, he is in control of their relationship; he still finds her seductive and she is still trying to please him, though with his effortless foreshadowing, we suspect that her intentions are sinister.
The diary flashes with displays of wit and style missing from the stories. Csath employs delicate or violent (often very funny) euphemisms for the sexual act and anatomystallions and chalices. His women often appear as animals (rabbits, weasels, hens, etc.), preparing to “sacrifice” for love. This sentimental terminology from the pen of an unsentimental omnivore at the height of his raging appetites provides another layer to the character of Dr. Brenner, the gynecologist who haunts husbands’ nightmares. “I performed the savagery upon her,” he notes, and the effect impressed me more than anything he allows himself in his short stories.
An odd and humorous vulnerability appears here and there, a trait the cold or macho or violent stories lack. When he tries to pep himself up, with his charming and daffy list of things to remember, he is not without a loopy charisma. You must hide from the world your doubts about yourself, he reminds himself, immediately after making a catalogue of the sexual acts one can enjoy when “coitus is not possible.” Encapsulating millennia of philosophical doubt in one to-do list item he notes, “Fortification of the will is great work and produces joy, but…” A truer ellipsis was never left unsaid.
And, while there is a vast distance between us and this man of only 90 years ago, he is almost able, from time to time, to convince me I would have liked his company. Just when I am sure he is a rapist and a swine, a sexual predator beyond the bounds of society and law, his conviction that he is doing nothing that the women around him don’t wish him to do almost convinces me. I left the Summer of 1912 thinking, “Well, maybe. Maybe it’s all relative…maybe I have judged him too harshly, and the forceful way he grabs life’s hot pleasures…perhaps we are just of different constitutions…”
I I I .
F R O M M E M O I R T O D I A R Y , F R O M L I F E T O D E A T H I N T H E C O M P A N Y O F M A D A M E M .
The Summer of 1912 draws to a close, and the memoir becomes a real-time diary, peppered with to-do lists and lectures on self-esteem. It is much less edited, polished, performed. Yet as literature its power is horrifying, as the character of Csath metamorphoses from the villain of a melodrama to the victim of a tragedy.
The end of the summer is also the end, albeit seven years before his actual suicide, of Csath’s life. Whether or not you like the man presented in the Notes, he is, at least, a
wrestling with life according to his own designs and ambitions. That cannot be said of him as 1912 turns to 1913.
Csath met morphine in 1909 when she appeared as an easy infatuation, a consolation to his very real worry of tuberculosis. She enters the journals disguised as the alluring and agreeable Madame M who brings him to perfect ecstasy (in a trio with a human lover) but later abandons him to a mild depression. At this slight, he vows for the first time (but decidedly not the last) to be done with her. She has served her purposes, and he will shed her as easily as his other love affairs. He manages to do without her for two weeks.
Throughout the fall and winter of 1912, his tone changes, parallel with his entwining addiction. A creeping confusion muddles his relationship to sex and drugs, as he uses the same vocabulary of “effects” and “ecstasy” to describe getting high and getting laid. First the humor melts away, replaced by pretense, insecurity, and offended pride. Pride, though, becomes brittle when allowed to swell too large and soon it shatters; he is trapped, utterly without pride, in self-loathing and paranoia. From the summer where he pretended for seduction purposes to be a sorcerer, he descends to the autumn, where a mere fortune-teller’s vague murmurs fill him with very real dread. His behavior becomes odd, manic. We are witnesses to an archteypal tragedy: a Renaissance man unable to use his mind to protect himself, squeezed to death by a very modern demon. When addiction comes, there is a short battle between his older values (sexual, medical, artistic, duelist), and those imposed upon him by his jealous chemical mistress. The only value she offers in return for those he loses is the brief mirage of immortality, as Csath so eloquently described it in his famous short story
. This exchange of old values for new is the heart of the tragedy, and, despite everything one knows (or thinks) of the sober Csath, his downfall is heartbreaking. The obsession with injection quantities. The loss of interest in everything in this world. The repeated self-cajoling to quit tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. The loss of irony, wit, perspective, health, finally (and perhaps this is Lady M’s most vicious trick), even the hope of achieving the ecstasy that only she can deliver. I found myself wanting Csath to get out of the house, to go betray his fiancée with his old gusto.
If the story
, and specifically the passage detailing how opium offers immortality to the brave, is one of literature’s most eloquent statements of the drug user’s philosophy, then its author’s life is an equally eloquent refutation of it. The short story of 1909 appeals to the drug pioneer, the solitary and proudly unstriving hedonist; the story brilliantly promotes the Romantic transgressive ideal lurking in aggressive drug use. The diary of 1913, on the other hand, displays with greater intensity the pathos, the torment, the obsession, the forced
, the most unromantic reality of addiction. “To transgress and harm myself, and not even to enjoy it-such bitter thoughts pursue me at these times, and often if there were a pistol nearby I would blow my head apart in a second.” Csath’s every pleasure is diminished by the drug and also made impossible without it. His ability to focus, to tolerate himself or others, to sleep, to rise, to function depends upon the whims of M. Hours without her are deemed triumphs. Plans for his escape from her multiply in vain. Paranoia ensues, and the journal entries about his wife (whom he will murder in 1919 before killing himself) begin to glow with a menacing foreshadowing, this woman who was once his only love and angel, his only flower in a desert of women. In these last pages the author Csath resembles most is Dante, and I felt he had left me, without the company of Virgil, to walk through every ring and fiery rivulet, every torment and stench found in Hell.