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Coming of age in a gay hothouse

by Gert Hekma in Films & Books , 30 september 2003

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Only recently Holland got to know the work of the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai (1900-1989) with the translation of his novel Gloed (Glow) (1938). Upon his suicide after the death of his wife and son Márai’s reputation quickly grew. The beginning of his career was at the time of Hitler’s rise to power, the chaos of that era resulting in WWII. These days the press can’t find words enough to praise his work, comparing it to that of Robert Musil, Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig.

Márai’s debut novel, De opstandigen (The Rebels), is a novel about four boys on the day of their final exams in a quiet Hungarian village at the end of WWII. Tibor is the central figure of this club of friends, the most handsome, most athletic, but also the least smart of this foursome. His father is a colonel fighting at the front.

Ábel is the son of an army doctor also away from home. Béla is the son of a well-to-do grocerer selling his goods at usurious price. And Ernö's father is a poor shoemaker returning from the trenches as an invalid religious fanatic. Other figures also play important roles, like Tibor’s older brother, a housebound invalid having lost one of his arms in the war, an actor passing through town and a sleazy pawnbroker. In the book women play merely minor background roles.

Only in their last year at school did these boys become friends. What attracts them to each is a mysterious mix of repulsion and eroticism. What binds them together is evident: the rebellion against their fathers and patriarchal authority in general. But it’s a rebellion destined for failure, because after their final exams the boys will become grown ups themselves and will be dragged into the war and, if they survive the trenches, the boring life of their sleepy hometown. They’ll probably marry and have kids of their own. Their fight against tradition is doomed from the start.

The boys’ rebellion is best expressed by their large-scale theft. Béla steals larger and larger sums of money from the cash desk in his father’s store and Tibor takes off with the family silver from under the bed of his terminally ill mother. Tibor and Ábel also steal symbols of their fathers’ professions like a saddle and a microscope. Ernö is the only one who doesn’t steal, simply because there’s nothing of value in his parental home. The loot is first kept in Tibor’s bedroom, later in a room in a sleazy hotel in the mountains.

With the money they buy themselves lots of liquor and meat and crazy outfits they use in all kinds of exciting dressup games. By the end of the story Tibor’s one armed brother Lajos introduces the actor Amadè. Lajos is an intermediary between the worlds of the adolescents and the grownups. The actor personifies the travelling faggot enchanting both the theatregoers and the boys with his acting and his stories, but who at the same time is regarded by society as the lowest of the lowest.

The boys learn their lessons about the deceit and dirt hidden behind the illusion of the adult world the hard way. They are repelled by a world where relations between the sexes still seem stuck in values from the Stone Age. They pretend to know it all, sex and whoring included, but in reality haven’t a clue and aren’t welcome yet in the world of the "real men." And what do they know about gay sex? The novel hints at it continuously in its own sultry fashion; the actor turns out to be a pederast, but what happens or doesn’t happen between him and the boys and the boys amongst each other gets never described in clear terms.

De opstandigen (The Rebels) is a compelling masterpiece, but doesn’t offer the explicit sex gay novels do nowadays. The implicit references are the same used for instance by Robert Musil in his Young Törless (1906) or Thomas Mann in his Death in Venice (1912).

Both Musil and Márai describe in their novels the homo-erotic hothouse adolescent schoolboys grow up in, while preparing for their entry into the world of the grownups.

Their last year in school is exciting, their final exam party the best ever, the prospect of adulthood promising and yet it all is pervaded from beginning to end with deceit, betrayal and death, spoiling the beautiful promises of both adolescence and maturity.

As far as we know The Rebels isn't translated into English yet, although other novels by Márai are. It is however available in German (Die jungen Rebellen) and French (Les Révoltés).



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In the New Issue of Gay News, 326, October 2018

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