The following is patched together from two sources and is a story I was drawn to. The first source is from a Google biographical essay by Catherine LaCroix:
Sándor Márai was born on April 11, 1900 in Kassa, Slovakia, a city in what was then upper Hungary, part of the Austro–Hungarian Empire. He was born to a distinguished bourgeois family. His father was a lawyer, and his mother came from a family of military officers, government officials, and more lawyers. He was the eldest of four children. “To me,” he wrote late in life, “being a bourgeois was never a matter of class status – I always believed it was a calling. In my view, the bourgeoisie was the best human phenomenon that modern Western culture produced, because it was the bourgeoisie who created modern Western culture.”
Márai had a private tutor until he was 10, and then attended a series of grammar schools. He ran away from home while at the first local one, so he was sent to a Catholic school in Budapest, where he spent only a year before moving to another school. His family was Catholic, but he lost his faith while still young. He looked to bourgeois humanism for principles that could order and direct his life. He read voraciously and took up writing at an early age, starting with poetry. He published his first story in a Hungarian newspaper when he was 14. He published his first collection of verse at 18. In 1919 he worked in the short–lived Bolshevik commune as a journalist and was — only briefly — a communist. When the Bolshevik administration lost power, his parents thought it best that he go abroad.
Márai went to Germany, where he began to study journalism at the University of Leipzig and philosophy at the universities of Frankfurt and Berlin. He contributed to magazines and newspapers during that time, and translated works of Kafka into Hungarian. He married a Jewish woman, Lola or Ilona Matzner, whom he had known in Kassa. In 1923, he and his wife moved to Paris, where he pursued further studies of philosophy. He earned his living by contributing to Hungarian-language publications. He reported on court cases, sports events, and holiday resorts. He also began to publish novels, novellas, short stories, plays and poetry.
In 1929 he and his wife returned to Hungary and settled near Budapest. By this time Márai was established as a writer, and he moved to a neighborhood that included many other prominent Hungarian writers of the time. His face adorned magazines; his newspaper columns were collected and sold in book form. He wrote as many as 46 books, 27 of them fiction. These included Embers, written in 1942. (Written, that is, at almost exactly the same time as the period in which it is set.) Other works included an autobiography, Confessions of a Middle Class Citizen, marked by searching self-analysis. He became one of Hungary’s most popular writers of the inter-war period, and his work appeared in several languages.
His heritage was important to him. He wrote that people “should remain faithful to those to whom their descent, upbringing and memories bind them,” adding that he felt anarchy to be “immoral.” His main inspiration came from nostalgia for the way of life destroyed in the upheaval after the First World War. One of his memoirs describes his Budapest apartment as filled with furniture passed down from the estates of his family and that of his wife. He mentions portraits of his father, grandfather, and other ancestors, and a library of 6,000 books. He describes the white–gloved maid who cleared the dishes after 11 Márai relatives dined together.
In 1939 Lola gave birth to a son, Kristof, who died after a few weeks, following an internal hemorrhage. It was a terrible loss. They were to bear no more children.
The Hungarian government was an ally of Germany during World War II. The Russians took over Budapest at the end of the war in 1945, during which process Russian bombing destroyed Márai ’s apartment. The Márai s fled to a nearby village, where they looked after a young boy who would become their adopted son. As the Communists solidified power in Hungary, Márai found that he could not live or publish in a regime so contrary to his own values. In 1948, he and his wife emigrated to Switzerland. They soon moved to Italy, where they spent four years.
While in Italy, his diary includes a 1949 entry that “the world has no need of Hungarian literature.” He added, “Back home, literature has disappeared … the country has collapsed; in its place all that is left is a communist Russian colony.” He concluded that he faced two forms of artistic suicide: tailoring his work for “foreign tastes,” or writing for non-existent Hungarian readers in a “deaf nothingness.” Indeed, back in Hungary, his name all but vanished, because the Communists did not publish his work; his books reappeared only after the collapse of Communist rule many years later.
In 1952, the Márais moved to New York City where, until he retired in 1967, Márai worked for Radio Free Europe. In 1979, he and his wife settled in San Diego to be near their adopted son. By then Márai had concluded that bourgeois civilization and bourgeois humanism had lost their luster and deteriorated into mass-market trash. Throughout his tenure in the United States, he continued to write, but all of his works were nostalgic period pieces, written in Hungarian for a Hungarian audience. They focused on faith and freedom of thought. Some works were translated into German or French, but none was published in English in Márai’s lifetime.
Márai lost his wife to cancer in 1986 and his adopted son to cancer as well in 1987 (at age 46). Both were devastating losses, for a man who by that time was wholly wrapped up in his family. Overseas, his brothers and sister also passed away. On February 21, 1989, after writing a note to his remaining family, Márai called the police. He told them that he was about to kill himself, and added where to find his apartment. He hung up and shot himself. According to news accounts, it was only while cleaning out his apartment after his death that his American daughter-in-law and three granddaughters discovered what a prolific and prominent author he had been.
Nine years later, in 1998, the Italian writer and publisher Roberto Calasso was flicking through a catalog of older works in Paris when he came across some Márai works in French translation. This was the beginning of the Márai renaissance in the West, including the Janeway translation of tonight’s book, Embers.
Anecdotes revealing Márai ’s personality are relatively sparse in the materials I reviewed. One story illustrates his apparent intense, unbending personality. When he heard that his estranged younger brother, a film director, had gone blind, he traveled across half the world to visit him. On arrival his brother exclaimed, “Sándor!” to which Márai replied only, “You can see?” then turned on his heels and left.
Another biographic insight concerns Márai’s devotion to his Hungarian heritage and language. The biographer suggests that the isolated Hungarian language contributes to the strength of Hungarian identity and friendships (as illustrated in Embers) and also to the ultimate loneliness of the exiled Márai’s life.
Catherine LaCroix, Sandor Marai A Biographical Essay
This next source is a reading selection from a WSJ book review, A Hungarian Novelist’s Literature of Fidelity by Eric Ormsby:
“Literary renown in English for Sándor Márai came to him in 2002 with the translation of “Embers.” “One spends a lifetime preparing for something,” he remarks in the book, “but when that something arrives, it is barely recognizable.”
One way Márai achieves a sense of depth in his novels is by treating time as strangely elastic. A single instant, half forgotten, will reveal its full import only decades afterward. His characters wait for years to grasp what one fleeting encounter portended. In “Embers,” the General has been waiting for 41 years to confront the friend who has betrayed him. In “Esther’s Inheritance,” Esther waits more than 30 years for the man who traded her inheritance for a worthless bauble, and in the end she surrenders her house and property to him.
“Portraits of a Marriage” (Knopf, 371 pages, $27.95), is the fifth Márai novel to be made available in English by Alfred A. Knopf since its success with “Embers” (it was followed by “Casanova in Bolzano,” “Rebels” and “Esther’s Inheritance). “Portraits” (1941) tells the story of the aristocratic Peter, who waits through 12 long years of a loveless marriage to take possession — or rather, be possessed by — Judit, the beautiful servant girl with whom he had a single exchange of words one Christmas Day. Márai shows how the past eludes us even more cunningly than the present, mutating as we examine it. Worse, remembrance is never unanimous; a shared past is a disputed past. Sometimes we believe we’ve uncovered some lost, almost irrecoverable moment and think it to be the moment that determined — or destroyed — our lives.
This is what Peter tells himself as he prepares to leave his wife, Ilona: “I understood that the decisive events of our lives are moments of stillness and silence, and that behind the visible, sensible events there lies another level, where something lazy is slumbering, a sleeping monster lodged under the sea or deep in the forest, in the heart of man, a dozy monster, some primeval creature, that rarely shifts itself, that yawns and stretches but rarely reaches for anything, and that this too is you, this monster, this otherness.”
This appears to be an impressive insight, the hard-won result of Peter’s dogged examination of conscience. As it turns out, it’s really much too easy. The monster he finds dozing within is actually a composite beast, made up not only of his own tenuous image of himself but the image of him created by his two overpowering and equally implacable wives. Ilona loves him too much; she wants to possess him completely, to winkle out “the secret of his soul.” Judit, by contrast, stands aloof, drawing him to her just as a magnet drags an iron filing irresistibly to itself.
As their successive monologues reveal, none of these three sees the others for what they are. To Peter, Judit is “terrifyingly beautiful,” but Judit, a poor peasant girl who grew up in “a ditch” that her family shared with field mice, is mesmerized by the glittering accoutrements of Peter’s affluent life. She marvels at his impeccably polished shoes in their dozens or at the special drawer designed for his many pairs of gloves. Each of these entangled characters comes through as thoroughly credible and desperately human. Though Márai’s eye is unsparing, he refrains from judgment. He’s less interested in presenting his characters’ spiraling self-deception — though he does that with uncanny insight — than in laying bare the terrible isolation that underlies all human relationships.
One of Márai’s contemporaries, the great Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres, expressed the frightening sense of something dark and fathomless beneath our busy lives. In his poem “The Secret Country” (as translated by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan), he wrote:
Below earth and sea there is
a black lake,
motionless and mirror-sharp,
no one knows its chasms.
Such subterranean awareness gives Márai’s fiction its compelling force. Ilona or Peter or Judit are presented with all their quirks and little peculiarities. Their habits, their way of dressing, the patterns of their speech, their emotional swerves from profound boredom to blazing rage, are all meticulously rendered. The scenes of their disclosures — a café in Budapest, a sleazy bedroom in Paris — are conveyed in a few deft strokes. But the novel’s realism only serves to intensify the uneasy feeling that these three people are always teetering just on the brink of that black lake with its unknowable chasms.
Unlike Proust, for whom the recovery of the past, even in its humblest instants, epitomizes an involuntary, almost magical occurrence, Márai offers no madeleines cooked up by nostalgia for our delectation. Instead, he treats memory as a caustic; it strips away the cozy lies and half-truths, the well-buffed legends, we concoct about ourselves. Yet, surprisingly, such corrosive remembrance confers unexpected nobility on his characters; their fixation on the past stands finally revealed not as a pathological symptom but as a rare fidelity to something essential in themselves, to some small but hard-won truth about their obscure lives that even time recovered cannot eradicate.”
Eric Ormsby, A Hungarian Novelist’s Literature of Fidelity
I guess the fascination for me with Márai follows from his lifelong concern with memory. I am much more in the Proustian vision of memory as it flows more neatly with a Catholic vision. When Adam and Eve refuse to accept their condition and by their inordinate desire to “be like God, knowing good and evil” form the Christian account of original sin, it not only provides a “first cause” explanation of human perversity, it also identifies through a rich narrative the archetypal pattern for every sin.
How stories can convey truth in ways that elude ordinary rational thought is a question worthy of great wonder and meditation. But if stories in general have this power, myth is characterized by stories that deliver truth in the most refined and compact narrative form. There is therefore no tension between myth and truth. As John Paul II writes, “the term ‘myth’ does not designate a fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing a deeper content.” The myth of the fall has this quality. Much great imaginative literature is merely an articulation and ramification of this myth, deepening our understanding of its meaning and of ourselves as well.
Nathan Schlueter, Reading The Theology Of The Body Into Wendell Berry’s Remembering
And so memory has become for me one of those hard wiring connections that the creature has with his creator that create the “twitch on the line” that Chesterton wrote about and was picked up by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited:
The Process By Which God Calls Us Back To The Center
The contemporary English novelist David Lodge was asked what makes his novels specifically Catholic. His response: they are all in different ways about God’s relentless pursuit of his errant children, This answer has always put me in mind of one of the greatest religious novels of the twentieth century, Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited.The second “book” of Brideshead bears the title “A Twitch upon the Thread,” and this image is derived from one of Chesterton’s Fr. Brown stories:
“I caught him [the thief] with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
Waugh’s novel is about the process by which God calls his children back to the center — even those who have drifted to the furthest edge. As such, it is a particularly apt illustration of the first path of holiness…. The story opens as Captain Charles Ryder and his troop, in the course of their training exercises in the English countryside, come upon a stately manor house called “Brideshead.” This chance encounter triggers in Charles a flood of memories, for that place had for many years been at the center of his emotional life.
The novel unfolds as the account of Charles’s reminiscences of the people that moved through that house and of the events that swirled around it. What becomes plain in the course of the tale is that the central character is none of the human figures, but rather the mansion itself: indomitable, alluring, haunting Brideshead. St. Paultold the Corinthians that Christ is the head of his body the church and, shifting the metaphor, that Jesus is the bridegroom and the church the bride. Waugh combines these two Pauline images, making of Brideshead itself (the head of the bride) a powerful figure of both Christ and the church. The novel is, accordingly, the complex account of how people circle around Christ, now fascinated, now repelled, sometimes in his embrace, sometimes in flight from him. It is about the power of the center.
Fr. Robert Barron, The Strangest Way
This, for me, is the phenomena of memory and what makes Márai’s vision so transfixing for me is the almost 180 degree vision it offers to the Christian vision. In Márai we see the human person whose conception of God or the world has him blocked — hence the wait for years that his characters endure to grasp what one fleeting encounter portended. No Proustian or Brideshead memories here that are leading his characters (and us) to a deeper interpretive relation with the world. No, these are “corrosive remembrances,” where memory is a “caustic,” that “strips away the cozy lies and half-truths, the well-buffed legends, we concoct about ourselves.”
For Márai, who has “lost his faith” according to these literary historians, the world sits “on a black lake, motionless and mirror-sharp” and “no one knows its chasms.” Yet even despite himself and his nightmare visions, Márai creates an “unexpected nobility on his characters.” These are, after all, Maritain’s human persons – “their fixation on the past stands finally revealed not as a pathological symptom but as a rare fidelity to something essential in themselves, to some small but hard-won truth about their obscure lives that even time recovered cannot eradicate.”
Blessedly I hope that in his writing he was touched by our Lord, the power at the center, as he saw that “rare fidelity” and responded to that “twitch upon the thread.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.