This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website. I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.
Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy’s short story, She Loves Me (trans. Judith Sollosy), is concerned with the fractured, broken last days of a dying relationship. The narrator appears to be an historian, or at the very least is an intellectual of some kind. He uses great battles as metaphors and, when considering his partner’s ethnic heritage, thinks of metals buried far underground, and the importance of homelands. The woman is – well, she’s angry – tired of his intellectualism, tired of the fact that his intellect serves only as a mask, and that underneath there is a animal lust and primal nature:
But then, in the heat of an all-out knockdown fight, she finally came clean. ‘I look at you,’ she screeched, ‘and all I see is my cunt! I see you in the shadow of my cunt!’ I don’t like her talking like that. I don’t like her calling the parts of our bodies by their names without due reflection.
He may not “like her talking like that”, but it’s clear that she has discovered that, for him, she is a series of orifices, a device for pleasure. And she’s had enough.
The narrator, to his discredit, continues intellectualising the matter. He lists her qualities (“She’s got pronounced views on the battle of Vezekény “, “she’s familiar with the anecdotes about Deák and Imre Nagy’s 1953 reforms”, but these, these are not reasons to stay in a relationship with a person. They are the reason you would open a book or listen to a university lecture. In short, the woman argues for a life of passion and desire, but what she is experiencing is the unpleasant feeling of living in the shade of her partner’s ivory tower.
By writing from the perspective of the man, Esterházy is able to illuminate the often contradictory nature of the misogynist. What does such a man want? It’s unclear, even to him. Yes, he wants her body, and for her to be a body to him. But he also (professes to) value her mind, even to himself.
I try to place her in some sort of context, stuff her inside some national cliché, but it’s no good, because her real context is my body. Her homeland is not her homeland, my body is. When I look at her, trying to figure her out, it’s not the image of the tablelands of Finland that I see, the abundant, cascading rivers as they surge forward between its lakes, but myself, I always see myself, too, my thighs, which we can safely call muscular, and at times the twitching muscles of my backside, the cheeks of my backside, or my moist lips, my finger.
Ah, there we go. She is, then, a canvas upon which his intellect, and his penis, can draw. Lucky him. But lucky her? No, and that understanding lies at the crux of the story. A man such as the narrator can say “she loves me” for as long as he wishes, and while it’s true, there is a good chance that this fact will leave him in a state of stasis, unwilling to alter the status quo much. He enjoys what he has. But the problem with that is that while he expects himself to grow and develop as an intellectual, the strong implication is that she is supposed to stay as she is: pliant, willing, devoted. And it becomes a problem when she breaks free of this because his reasoning leaves him nowhere to go.
She Loves Me is an appealing short story. The narrator, if you met him over coffee after a University lecture, would be urbane, witty, clever. A good conversationalist. Passionate about the Great Ideas and important matters of the world. He would make a good impression, and you would leave him convinced that you had experienced the dialogue of a very grand man. And yet, somewhere not too far away, there is a woman, lonely, close to miserable, who is cooking his meals and cleaning his rooms. And after this story, that woman is not the female from She Loves Me, thankfully. She has escaped, and good for her.
She Loves Me by Péter Esterházy is a short story from Babelmatrix, and is available online.
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