Review – 17th June, 2011

VS: the Hungarian George Sand

Zsuzsa Rakovszky: VS

Review–17th June, 2011


Zsuzsa Rakovszky: VS
The protagonist of Zsuzsa Rakovszky's third novel, Sándor (Alexander) Vay, aka Countess Sarolta (Charlotte) Vay was born in 1859 in an aristocratic family. Born a girl, she was brought up as a boy, and when she grew up, writer-journalist Vay lived and behaved as gentry men did in Hungary at the end of the 19th century. 

She studied at various European universities, and when the family lost their fortune, she started to write in order to earn a living. She wrote mostly feuilletons about 18th and 19th century Hungary, describing the everyday life and the festivities of her own class in the nostalgic voice of the male narrator, and always talked about women as eternal Others. Richard von Krafft-Ebing devoted a whole chapter to her case (that he called "gynandria") in his Psychopathia sexualis (1886), Gyula Krúdy wrote an essay entitled "The Hungarian George Sand" on her, and recently (in 2007) Anna Borgos wrote an excellent biography and medical case history of this enigmatic figure (available online in Hungarian), but Zsuzsa Rakovszky’s novel can easily be understood—insofar as such cases are understandable at all—without any preliminary reading.

The narrative of VS starts with diary entries, written in prison on 1 November 1889, then the short texts that give insight into a disturbed mind become longer, and, with more and more composure, the narrator is beginning to feel the—rather closed—borders of his/her world. VS writes two poems and annotates them continually; she corrects, explains and paraphrases them, like a character in a Nabokov novel, as if she could escape from her imprisonment by virtue of these revelations. What László Márton wrote about Rakovszky’s second novel, The Year of the Falling Star, is true here as well: "It seems to me that Zsuzsa Rakovszky imitates the process of (giving) birth. From the tight, closed space of the first chapters the narrative moves towards wider, more open spaces; not continuously, but in stages, as if through shocks."

Zsuzsa Rakovszky chose the Archimedean point of the Sándor/Sarolta story as the starting moment. VS is in custody in Klagenfurt, arrested after a badly executed, petty fraud, and her real sex is discovered. The social and mental illusion that she had experienced as an evidence for almost thirty years cannot be maintained any longer. In this dramatic situation it is not only the curious and uncomprehending outer world that suddenly realizes what the real sex of VS is; she herself must interpret her situation, the previous chapters of her life history as well as her perspectives in the future: VS vs. VS. After the medical examination she writes about her meeting with the Other within her: "I cannot write poetry any more! The person who wrote my poems, no longer exists—he died, he expired in the hands of the executioner, that devilish female!" After some time following her arrest it is not only the law, but another science also that investigates Vay's special case; a science that was beginning to be highly appreciated at the time: clinical medical science. It is not the petty fraud, nor even the intention to get married and start a family that excites the experts, but rather VS’s gender, and the medical explanations and descriptions related to it.

At this point the novel changes perspective: the declarations of the eponymous character are complemented by medical notes in italics. Dr Birnbacher’s first report about their first meeting is on page 56, directly after VS's report of this conversation from her own perspective. Intensive first-person narration has always been one of the greatest strengths of Rakovszky’s art—not only in prose, but also in poetry—and this is true of her new novel as well. A Rakovszky sentence glances into the depth of human faces; it records the ultimate words that can be said aloud at all, and comes as close as possible to sensual realities. There is no reality, there are only realities. The great debate of the medical doctor and VS can be summarized as the truth of the body vs. the truth of the soul. At one point VS cries out: "All you see is flesh and bones, only whatever can be touched and measured... but you don’t know anything about the inner truth, the truth of the soul!" By reading several I-narratives about the same event, we learn more not only about the narrator, but also the other, the passive, narrated character.

Page 83 inaugurates a new level of narration. This two-hundred-page long inserted novel is VS’s autobiography that she starts to write on Birnbacher’s advice. It begins with VS’s birth and ends with the jail at Klagenfurt. This biography, a brilliant imitation of style, tells of the death of VS’s (fictional?) twin sibling who left a black hole, a permanent feeling of lack behind; her father, an eccentric, and the disillusionment after the revolution and civil war of 1848-49; the boarding-school; the first writings; her great love, actress Emma Eszéki, her elopement, and their wedding with a mock-priest. However, the last and fatal love—Mari Engelhardt—the second wife, who wanted to have a child with Sándor, and whose father denounced VS, is not mentioned. Rakovszky had to take into account the fact that the real-life VS was a typical feuilleton writer of her time, and her prose was also a product of that stylistic world. The first reader and interpreter of this story is Dr Birnbacher who sees the narrative not so much as a life story but rather as a case history.

And as for the reader—what can he/she find in Rakovszky’s new novel? First and foremost, the self-portrait of an individual who balanced all her life on the precarious borderline between the possible vs the impossible, and who found a secure home in—otherwise unbearable—love and desire, in flexible fiction, and in the initials VS, which included both a man and a woman and gave him/her a sanctuary.

Rakovszky Zsuzsa: VS
Budapest:Magvető, 2011  

János Szegő


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