It’s easy to visualize this story on the stage, in some west end or off-broadway theatre. Normally I am not one for “relationship” fare but this story transfixes. I’ve made numerous selections here but have withheld some critical portions so you will need to buy the book and finish it. Suffice to say it will hold you in its maw.
Lajos is a scoundrel, satanic in nature, think Jeremy Irons who actually played the role. I would go for Geraldine Page or Meryl Streep for Esther.
As I have written elsewhere, Sándor Márai writes for all of us who are stuck and simply can no longer deal. Esther is another Marai character awaiting a denouement for her years of not moving on. More excellent reviews on Esther’s Inheritance here.
Wounds Time Does Not Heal
I (Esther) would be lying if I claimed to have felt particularly unfortunate in those hours. Oh yes, there was a time some twenty or twenty-two years ago when I was unfortunate. But the feeling gradually melted away, the wound scabbed over. It was an unfamiliar strength that enabled me to suppress the upwelling of pain. There are wounds time does not heal. I knew that I myself was not healed. Only a few years after our “separation” — it is very difficult to find the right word for what happened between Lajos (her suitor who married her sister Vilma) and me — the unbearable suddenly became natural, simple. I no longer needed anything; I didn’t need help, there was no need to call the police or the doctor or the priest. Somehow or other I continued living.. .
Eventually there was a circle of friends, people who assured me that they needed me. A couple of them even proposed: Tibor, who was some years younger, and Endre, whom only Nunu (old family friend; see below) addresses in the deferential way, as “Mister Endre,” though he is not a day older than Lajos. Somehow or other I managed this game or accident quite well. The suitors remained good friends. That night I also reflected how life, in some miraculous fashion, had been kinder to me than I could ever have hoped.
Nunu is the family member who “stands in” for all the other family members in the house. She had arrived thirty years before, part of the nomadic process whereby families drift about the world like mythical figures: she arrived out of an archaic past, part of the genealogical fabric of great-aunts and grandnieces, just for a few weeks. Then she stayed because she was needed. And later she stayed because everyone else in the family had died off before her, so Nunu was left, decade on decade, step by step, to ascend the ladder of family hierarchy, until she finally took Grandmother’s place, moved into the room upstairs, and inherited her sphere of influence. Then Mama died, and then Vilma. One day Nunu noticed that she was not “standing in” for anybody; she noticed that she, the newcomer — she, the remnant — was the only family.
The successful conclusion of this complex career did not go to her head. Nunu had no ambition to be “mother” to me, nor did she pretend to be a guardian angel. As years went by she became ever more taciturn and sensible, so ruthlessly and dryly sensible it seemed she must have experienced everything life had to offer, so matter-of-fact and impassive she might have been a piece of furniture. Laci once said that Nunu had the air of something varnished, like an old walnut cabinet. She always dressed the same, summer and winter, in a dress of some smooth material that was not silk but was not taffeta either and which struck strangers, and even me, as a little too Sunday-best. In recent years she spoke just as much as was necessary and no more.
I couldn’t help but know that everything Lajos touched lost its original meaning and value, broke down into its elements, changed as did the noble metals once the alchemists got them into their retorts … I couldn’t help but know that Lajos was not only capable of changing the nature of metals and stones but could turn true people into false ones. I couldn’t help but know that a ring could not remain an innocent object once Lajos got his hands on it. Vilma(Esther’s sister) had been ill a long time and couldn’t mind all the household affairs, so Lajos had the run of the place and had taken possession of the ring . . . the very moment Nunu said it, I knew it was true. Lajos had conned me with the ring, as with everything else. I sat up in bed, quite pale.
“Have you had a look at it?”
“Yes,” said Nunu quite calmly. “One time when you were not at home and left me with the keys. I took it to the jeweler. He had changed the setting too. He had picked some white metal for the clasp. Steel is less valuable than platinum. White gold, they said. He had changed the stone too. The ring you have looked after so carefully all these years is not worth five krajcárs.”
“That’s not true,” I said.
“Wake up, Esther!” she scolded me
I watched the candle flame and said nothing. Of course, if Nunu said it, it must be true. And why should I pretend not to have suspected it for a long time, from the moment Lajos gave me the ring. A fake, I thought there and then. Everything he touches instantly becomes a fake. And his breath, it’s like the plague, I thought. I clenched my hand into a fist. It wasn’t because of the ring.. . what did a ring or any number of rings matter at my time of life? Everything he has touched is fake, I thought. And then I thought something else, saying it out loud:
“Was giving it to me a calculated act? Because he feared being pursued, by the children or someone else, later … and since the ring was a fake anyway he gave me the copy so they should discover I had it and once it turned out to be fake, blame me?”
I was thinking aloud, as I always did when with Nunu. If anyone understood Lajos it was old Nunu, who knew him inside and out and read his every thought, even those thoughts he dared not actually think. Nunu was always fair. She answered in her usual way, gently and without fuss.
“I don’t know. It’s possible. But that would be a really lowdown thing to do. Lajos was not a schemer of that kind. Lajos has never once committed a criminal act. And he loved you. I don’t think he would have used the ring to drag your name through the dirt. It simply happened that he had to sell the ring because he needed the money, but lacked the courage to admit he had sold it. So he had a copy made. And he gave you that worthless copy. Why? Was it a calculated act? Was it cheating? Maybe he just wanted to be generous. It was such a wonderful moment, everyone arriving fresh from Vilma’s funeral, his first gesture being to hand over to you the family’s only valuable heirloom. I suspected it as soon as you described the grand moment. That’s why I had it looked at later. It’s a fake.”
“Fake,” she repeated mechanically, in the flattest of tones.
“Why wait to tell me now?” I asked her.
Nunu brushed a few gray locks from her forehead.
“There was no need to tell you everything straightaway,” she said, almost tenderly. “You had had quite enough bad news about Lajos.”
I got out of bed, went over to the sideboard, and searched out the ring in the secret drawer, Nunu helping me look in the light of the billowing candle flame. Having found it, I held the ring to the flame and thoroughly examined it. I don’t know anything about precious stones.
“Scratch the surface of the mirror with it,” suggested Nunu.
But the stone made no mark on the glass. I put on the ring and gazed at it. The stone sparkled with a cold vacant light. It was a perfect copy, created by a master.
We remained sitting on the edge of the bed gazing at the ring. Then Nunu kissed me, gave a sigh, and went off without a word. I carried on sitting there for a long time staring at the fake stone. Lajos has not even arrived yet, I thought, but he has already taken something from me. That’s all he can do, it seems. That’s the way it is, it is his constitution. A terrible constitution, I thought, and started shivering. That’s how I fell asleep, all gooseflesh, the fake ring on my finger, my senses dulled. I was like someone who has spent too long in a stuffy room then suddenly feels dizzy in the pitiless sharp air of truth that roars about her like a gale.
We had the house renovated, thanks to Endre, who arranged a cheap loan against the bequest. All this happened without being planned: it simply happened without any particular intention or aim. One day we noticed we had a shelter over our heads. Occasionally I could buy material with which to make clothes, Laci could borrow what books were necessary, and the state of solitude we entered with such trepidation after the collapse, like wounded animals entering a cave, slowly dissolved around us, so soon we had friends and the house rang on Sundays with hearty male conversation. People looked after us, giving Nunu and me a place in the world, allocating us a slot in the nook of their imaginations where we could quietly get on with our lives.
Life was nowhere near as unbearable or hopeless as I had imagined it would be. Slowly our lives were given over to new activities: we had friends and even a few enemies, such as Tibor’s mother and Endre’s wife, who, ridiculously and entirely without cause, resented their menfolk visiting our house. There were times when life in the house and the garden was like real life that has a purpose, a project, some inner meaning. It was just that it had no meaning; we could have gone on for years on end just as we were, but if someone had ordered us to leave the very next day I would have put up no resistance. Life was simple and safe.
Lajos was a disciple of Nietzsche, who demanded that one should live dangerously, but he was frightened of danger, and when he entered into some political “involvement” he did so as he embarked on any passion, with a loud mouth and equipped with some “secret weapon,” protecting himself with carefully calculated lies, with warm underwear, with some cosmetic items and the well-preserved, more scandalous letters of his adversaries in his pocket. But there was a time when I was close to him when my life was as “dangerous” as his. Now that this danger has passed I can see that nothing is as it was, and that such danger was in fact the one true meaning of life.
I felt dizzy and had to grope for support. I had a vision. I saw the past so clearly it seemed to be the present. I saw the garden, the same garden where we were just now waiting for Lajos, waiting under the great ash, but then we were twenty years younger, our hearts full of despair and anger. Harsh, passionate words buzzed like flies in the autumn air. It was autumn then too, toward the end of September. The air was scented and damp. We were twenty years younger then, relatives, friends, and vague acquaintances, and Lajos was standing in our midst like a thief caught red-handed.
I see him there as he stands, unflummoxed, blinking a little, occasionally removing his glasses and carefully wiping them. He is alone at the center of the agitated circle, as calm as anyone can be when they know the game is up, that all is discovered and there is nothing left to do except stand patiently and listen while judgment is pronounced. Then suddenly he is gone, and we are living on in our mechanical way, like wax dolls. But it is as if we only appeared to be living; our true lives were the battles we had with Lajos, our passion the exasperation with him.
Now here he was about to be in the old circle, in the old garden. Now we would start to live again with the same passionate exasperation. I put on my lilac dress. It was like donning an old theatrical costume, the clothes of life. I felt that everything a man might stand for — his strength, his own particular way of life — roused in his adversaries a specific image of what it means to be alive. We all belonged to him, had combined against him, and now that he was on his way to us, we were living different lives, more exciting, more dangerous lives. I stood before the mirror in my room, in my old dress, feeling all this. Lajos was bringing back both the past and the timeless experience of being alive.
I knew he had not changed. I knew Nunu would be right. I knew there was nothing we could do to defend ourselves. But at the same time I knew that I still had no clue about life, about my own life and the lives of others, and it was only through Lajos that I could learn the truth — yes, through the liar, Lajos. The garden was filling up with acquaintances. A car was sounding its horn somewhere. Suddenly I felt a great calm descend on me: I knew Lajos had come because he had no choice, and that we were welcoming him because we had no choice, and the whole thing was as terrifying, as unpleasant, and as unavoidable for him as it was for us.
There was something sad about him, something that reminded me of an aging photographer or politician who is not quite up-to-date regarding manners and ideas but continues obstinately, and somewhat resentfully, to employ the same terms of flattery he has used for years. He was an animal tamer past his prime, of whom the animals are no longer afraid. His clothes, too, were peculiarly old-fashioned: as if he were wanting to keep up with the fashions at all costs but some inner demon prevented him from being elegant or fashionable in the way he thought was necessary and which he liked. His tie, for example, was just a shade louder than was right for the rest of his outfit, his character and age, so he had the air of a gigolo. His suit was of a light color, fashionable in that it was loose and made for traveling, the kind you see movie moguls in magazines wear when they are globe-trotting. Everything was a little too new, specially chosen for the occasion, even his hat and shoes. And all this communicated a certain helplessness.
A Conversation With Lajos
“I don’t need anything anymore,” he answered, evidently not insulted. “Now it is I who want to give you something. Look here, twenty years have passed, twenty years! There will not be many more twenty years like that now, these may be the last. In twenty years things become clearer, more transparent, more comprehensible. Now I know what happened, and even why it happened.”
“How repulsive,” I said, my voice breaking. “How repulsive and ridiculous. Here we sit on this bench, we who once mattered to each other, talking about the future. No, Lajos, there is no future of any kind, I mean for us. Let’s get back to reality. There is something, a quality you are unaware of: it is a kind of modest dignity, the dignity of bare existence. I have been humiliated enough. Just talking about the past is humiliating. What do you want? What’s the idea? Who are these strange people? One day you pack, round up some people and some animals, and arrive in the grand old manner, with the same old words, as if you were obeying a call from God. . . but people know you here. We know you, my friend.”
I spoke calmly, with a certain ridiculous pomposity, pronouncing each word clearly and firmly as if I had been composing the speech for some time. The truth was I hadn’t composed anything. Not for a moment did I believe that anything here could be “put right,” I had no wish to fall into Lajos’s arms, I didn’t even want to argue with him. What did I want? I would like to have been indifferent.
Here he is, he has arrived, this was just another episode in the peculiar pageant of life, he wants something, he’s up to something, but then he’ll go away and we will go on living as before. He no longer has any power over me! I felt and looked on him, safe, superior. He no longer has any power over me in the old sentimental sense. But at the same time I noticed that the excitement of this first conversation was far from indifference; the passion with which I spoke was a sign that there still existed a relationship that was far from fanciful, affected, or imagined, a relationship that was not mere moonshine, memory, or nostalgia. We were talking about something real. And, since it was vital, after so much mist and fog, to find a toehold in reality, I answered quickly without choosing my words.
“You have nothing to give me. You took everything, ruined everything.”
He answered as I expected him to.
He looked at me with clear gray eyes, then stared straight in front of him. He pronounced the words childishly, with an air of wonder, as if someone had praised him for passing an exam. I shuddered. What kind of man was this? He was so calm. Now he was looking round the garden examining the house appraisingly, like an architect. Then he began a conversation.
“Your mother died there, in the upper room, behind closed shutters.”
“No,” I said, thinking back. “She died downstairs in the parlor that Nunu now occupies.”
“Interesting,” he said. “I had forgotten.”
Then he threw away his cigarette, stood up, took a few firm strides to the wall, and tapped the bricks, shaking his head.
“A little damp,” he said in a disapproving but abstract tone.
“We had it fixed last year,” I said, still lost in my memories.
He came back to me and looked deep into my eyes. He remained silent for a long a time. We gazed at each other under half-closed eyelids, carefully and curiously. His expression was solemn now, devout.
“One question, Esther,” he said quietly and solemnly. “Just one question.”
I closed my eyes, feeling hot and dizzy. The dizziness lasted a few moments. I put out my hand as if to defend myself. It’s starting, I thought. My god, he wants to ask me something. But what? Maybe he wants to know how the whole thing happened? Whether it was I who lacked courage? No, now I have to answer. I took a deep breath, ready to answer his question.
“Tell me, Esther,” he asked quietly, soulfully. “Does this house still have a mortgage?”
One Just Knows
The phrase “So, Lajos,” with which, after twenty years, he greeted him, was not exactly condescending, not proud or severe, and yet I saw how the words discomposed Lajos, how he was glancing around nervously, in a funk, wiping his brow with a handkerchief. They talked together about politics and about the funeral. Then Endre, having seen and heard enough, gave a shrug, sat down on the bench, and crossed his hands over his belly, old-gentleman fashion. The day was well into the late afternoon, and once he had checked the deeds by which I empowered Lajos to sell the house, he had nothing more to say to anyone.
Naturally, we were all aware that Lajos wanted my life, or, more precisely, Nunu’s life, that he wanted to rob me of my peace. The house was still there providing a roof above our heads, a little battered by time but, despite everything, still fortress-like: the house was the last object of value we possessed that Lajos had not yet taken away, and now he had come for it. The moment I received the telegram I knew he was after the house; one doesn’t think such things in words, one just knows. I carried on deceiving myself to the last. Endre knew, so did Tibor.
Later we were astonished at how cheaply and easily we surrendered to Lajos and accepted the fact that in life there are no halfway solutions, and the process having begun fifteen years ago simply had to be finished. Lajos knew it too. He had established that the house was a touch damp and having done so immediately talked about something else, as if the most important part of his business was concluded and there was no point wasting words on details. Tibor and Laci stood by inquisitively. Sometime later, before dinner, a tailor arrived, Lajos’ old tailor, and bowing and scraping in embarrassment handed over a twenty-five-year-old bill. Lajos embraced him and sent him away. The gentlemen drank vermouth, talked in loud voices, and laughed a great deal at Lajos’s anecdotes. We sat down to dinner in an excellent mood.
She told me how she had first met Lajos eight years before when she left her husband. Her son worked in an office; she did not say precisely where or what kind. I had never in my life seen people like the woman and her son at close quarters. I had leafed through magazines where there were photographs of what the young were up to, or a species of youth, the kind of people who danced in jackets with padded shoulders in the lobbies of hotels or flew airplanes or dashed off somewhere on a motorcycle with young women whose skirts fluttered above the knee on the pillion seat. I am of course aware that there is another species of the young who are perfectly real people. The former is just my caricature of unnerving aliens of whom I know next to nothing but who live on in my memory and imagination. All I know is that they are no longer anything to do with me. Beyond the confusion, beyond my ignorance, when I am in their presence I know that I have no means of communicating with them; they are the species of motoring and dancing humanity I see on movie screens, who are not included in the contract my parents and I had established with society.
There was something unusual about the boy; he might have been the hero of a novel, most likely a detective story. He said little, and when he spoke he stared at the ceiling and pronounced each syllable distinctly, almost singing the words. He was as melancholy as his mother; both exuded a dreary sadness. I had never before been with people who were so insultingly, so brazenly alien. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink. He wore a thin gold bracelet on his left wrist. Sometimes he raised his hand so suddenly it looked as though he wanted to hit someone; then, with a stiff mechanical movement, he would push the bracelet farther up his arm. I discovered he had not long passed thirty and was a secretary of some sort at the headquarters of one of the political parties, but when he took off his dark blue glasses and surveyed the people and objects in the room his watery eyes made him look even older than Lajos.
Why do you bother with them! I thought. But I couldn’t help noticing that he kept an eye on the company. I didn’t even like his name, the rather common Bela. It meant nothing to me. I always have a strong reaction to names, liking or hating them. It is an unjustified, crude feeling. But it is just such feelings that determine our relationship to the world, our loves and hates. I couldn’t give him very much attention, since his mother completely occupied mine. Without any invitation whatsoever she gave me her life. The story was one long catalog of complaint, a shrill cry of accusation directed at authorities both earthly and heavenly, at men and women, at relatives and lovers, at children and husbands. The accusations were rendered in a flat, even voice, in smooth, round sentences, as if she were reciting a text she knew by heart. Everyone had deceived her, everyone was against her, and, in the end, they had all left her; that, at least, was what I gathered from her philippics. I occasionally shuddered: it was like being addressed by a lunatic. Then, without pausing, she got on to the subject of Lajos. She spoke cynically and confidentially. I couldn’t bear her manner. It humiliated me to think that Lajos required accomplices of this kind to call on me, that this person had some kind of rank. I stood up with Lajos’s gift, the lilac silk shawl, in my hand.
“We don’t know each other,” I said. “Perhaps we should not be speaking like this.”
“Oh,” she said calmly, quite indifferent to my concern. “We will have plenty of time to talk about it. We will get to know each other, dear Esther.”
She lit a cigarette and blew a long line of smoke, gazing so assuredly through the cloud at me it seemed she must have already arranged everything. It was all decided: she knew something I didn’t, and there was nothing I could do except give in.