Archive for the ‘Sándor Márai’ Category


Reading Selections from Esther’s Inheritance – Sándor Márai

October 17, 2011

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.

My original post on Sándor Márai here and reading selections from another of his novels, Embers, 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.

The Ring
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.

Nunu shrugged.

“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.

The House
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.

Expecting Lajos
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.

Seeing Lajos
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.

That’s true.”

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.

Lajos’ Circle
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.


Reading Selections from Embers – Sándor Márai

June 15, 2011

Finally, there is no sense in investigating the details. But one has an obligation to seek out the essentials, the truth of things, because otherwise, why has one lived at all? Why has one endured these forty-one years?

This is a wonderful book that we had spoken of earlier. Now I can offer you some firsthand evidence in the form of reading selections. Some like The Old Nurse below here show the remarkable eye for detail that Marai possessed and that now comes to us in the form of memory.

His style in this novel is elegiac, the feel is that of a legend but the echo is that of myth, truths like the gospel stories that reach far beyond the events of the story. The Trip Home selection demonstrates this.

These characters are people who are frozen in time unable to escape the traumas of their past and subjected to what Eric Ormsby, in his review A Hungarian Novelist’s Literature of Fidelity called “corrosive remembrances.” In “Embers,” the General has been waiting for 41 years to confront the friend who has betrayed him. Here memory is a “caustic,” that “strips away the cozy lies and half-truths, the well-buffed legends, we concoct about ourselves.” It leaves the characters mercilessly aware of the sins and truths of their lives.

For Márai, who had “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.

It is, as noted below in Details vs Essentials, there is no sense in investigating details. But one has an obligation to seek out the essentials, the truth of things, because otherwise, why has one lived at all? Why has one endured these forty-one years? the General asks himself.

The Old Nurse
“Sit down, Nini,” said the General.

The nurse sat down. In the last year she had become old. After reaching ninety, one ages differently from the way one aged at fifty or sixty: one ages without bitterness. Nini’s face was rose pink and crumpled — such is the way noble fabrics age, and centuries-old silks that hold woven in their threads the assembled skills and dreams of an entire family. The previous year she had developed a cataract in one eye, leaving it gray and sad. The other eye had remained blue, the timeless blue of a mountain lake in August, and it smiled. Nini was dressed as always in dark blue, dark-blue felt skirt, simple blouse. As if she hadn’t had any new clothes made in the last seventy-five years.

The Trip Home
It was autumn when they came home, almost a year later. The foreign lady sat deep inside the coach, swathed in veils and coverlets. They took the mountain route across Switzerland and the Tyrol. In Vienna they were received by the Emperor and Empress. The Emperor was benevolent, just the way he was always described in children’s textbooks. “Beware,” he said. “In the forest where he’s taking you, there are bears. He’s a bear too.” And he smiled. Everyone smiled. It was a sign of great favor that the Emperor should joke with the French wife of the Hungarian Officer of the Guards. “Majesty,” she replied, “I shall tame him with music, as Orpheus tamed the wild beast.”

They journeyed on through fruit-scented meadows and woods. After they crossed the frontier, mountains and cities dwindled away, and the lady began to weep. “Darling, I feel dizzy. There is no end to all of this.” It was the Puszta that made her dizzy, the deserted plain stretching away under the numbing, shimmering blanket of autumn air, now bare after the harvest, transected by primitive roads along which they jolted for hour after hour, while cranes wheeled in the empty sky and the fields of maize on either side lay plundered and broken as if a retreating army had passed through at the end of a war, leaving the landscape a wasteland.

The Officer of the Guards sat silently in the coach, his arms crossed. From time to time he ordered a horse to be brought, and he rode for long distances alongside the carriage, observing his native land as if he were seeing it for the first time. He looked at the low houses, with their green shutters and white verandas, where they spent the nights, Magyar houses with their thick-planted gardens all around them, the cool rooms in which every piece of furniture, even the smell in the cupboards, was familiar to him, and the landscape whose melancholy solitude moved him as never before. He saw with his wife’s eyes the wells with their hanging buckets, the parched fields, the rosy clouds above the plain in the sunset. His homeland opened itself before them, and with a beating heart the officer sensed that the landscape that now embraced them also held the secret of their fate. His wife sat in the coach and said nothing. Sometimes she raised a handkerchief to her face, and as she did so, her husband would bend down toward her out of the saddle and cast a questioning glanced into her tear-filled eyes. But with a gesture she signaled that they should continue. Their lives were joined together now.

“Vienna wasn’t just a city, it was a tone that either one carries forever in one’s soul or one does not. It was the most beautiful thing in my life. I was poor, but I was not alone, because I had a friend. And Vienna was like another friend. When it rained in the tropics, I always heard the voice of Vienna. And at other times too. Sometimes deep in the virgin forests I smelled the musty smell of the entrance hall in the house in Hietzing. Music and everything I loved was in the stones of Vienna, and in people’s glances and their behavior, the way pure feelings are part of one’s very heart. You know when the feelings stop hurting. Vienna in winter and spring. The allees in Schonbrunn. The blue light in the dormitory at the academy, the great white stairwell with the baroque statue. Mornings riding in the Prater. The mildew in the riding school. I remember all of it exactly, and I wanted to see it again,” he says softly, almost ashamed.

“And after forty-one years, what did you find?” the General asks again.

“A city,” says Konrad with a shrug. “Change.”

“Yes, you certainly experienced a great deal in the world out there. But it’s quickly forgotten.”

“No,” is the reply. “The world doesn’t count. One never forgets what is important. I learned that only later, when I was somewhat older. Nothing secondary remains — it gets thrown away along with one’s dreams. I have no memory of the regiment,” he says stubbornly. “For some time now all I remember is the essentials.”

“For example Vienna and this house, is that what you mean… .

“Vienna and this house,” the guest echoes mechanically. He stares straight ahead with eyes half-closed, blinking. “Memory has a wonderful way of separating the wheat from the chaff. There can be some great event, and ten, twenty years later one realizes that it had no effect on one whatsoever. And then one day, one remembers a hunt or a passage in a book or this room. Last time we sat here, there were three of us. Krisztina was alive. She sat there in that chair. These ornaments were on the table, too.”

“Yes,” says the General. “East was in front of you, South was in front of Krisztina, and West was in front of me.” “You remember it down to the details?” asks the guest, astonished.

“I remember everything.”

“Sometimes the details are extremely important. They link everything together into a whole, and bind all the ingredients of memory. I used to think about that sometimes in the tropics, when it rained. That rain!” he says, as if to change the subject. “For months on end, drumming on the tin roof like a machine gun. Steam comes up off the swamps and the rain is warm. Everything is damp, the bedclothes, your underwear, your books, the tobacco in its tin, the bread. Everything feels sticky and greasy.

You’re in your house, the Malays are singing. The woman you’ve taken to live with you sits motionless in a corner of the room and watches you. They can sit for hours like that, staring. At first you pay no attention. Then you start to feel nervous, and order them out of the room. But it doesn’t help: They go and sit somewhere else, you know, in another room and stare at you through the partitions. They have huge brown eyes like those Tibetan dogs, the ones that don’t bark, the most subservient animals in the whole world.

They look at you with those brilliant, quiet eyes, and no matter where you go, you feel that look pursuing you like some noxious ray. Scream at her and she smiles. Strike her and she smiles. Banish her and she sits on the threshold and looks in until she is called back. They are constantly having children, though nobody ever mentions this, least of all they themselves. It is as if you are sharing quarters with an animal, a murderess, a priestess, a magician and a fanatic all rolled into one. Over time it becomes exhausting; that look is so powerful that it wears down even the strongest man. It is as powerful as the touch of a hand, as if you were constantly being stroked. It drives you mad. Then that, too, begins to leave you indifferent.

It rains. You sit in your room, drink one schnapps after another, and smoke sweet tobacco. Sometimes a visitor comes, drinks schnapps, and smokes sweet tobacco. You would like to read, but somehow the rain gets into the book, too; not literally, and yet it really does, the letters are meaningless, and all you hear is the rain. You would like to play the piano, but the rain comes to sit alongside and play an accompaniment. And then dry weather returns, which is to say there is steam and bright light. People age quickly.”

Solitude And Faith
What’s even worse is if you take this upsurge of feeling, which has accumulated in your heart over so many lonely years and you push it back inside. And you don’t run. And you don’t kill anyone. And what do you do instead? You live, you maintain discipline. You live like a monk of some heathen worldly order. But it’s easy for a real monk, because he has his belief. A man who has signed away his soul and his fate to solitude is incapable of faith. He can only wait. For the day or the hour when he can talk about everything that forced him into solitude with the man or men who forced him into that condition. He prepares himself for that moment for ten or forty or forty-one years the way one prepares for a duel. He brings his affairs into order in case he dies in the duel. And he practices every day, as professional duelists do. And what weapon does he practice with? With his memories, so that he will not allow solitude and time to cloud his sight and weaken his heart and his soul. There is one duel in life, fought without sabers, that nonetheless is worth preparing for with all one’s strength. And it is the most dangerous. And one day the moment comes. What do you think?” he asks courteously.

“I quite agree,” says the guest, and looks at the ash of his cigar.

“I’m so glad you take the same view,” says the General. “The anticipation keeps one alive. Of course, it, too, has its limits, like everything in life. If I hadn’t known that you would come back one day, I would have probably set out myself to find you, in your house near London or in the tropics or in the bowels of hell. You know I would have come looking for you. Clearly one knows everything of real importance, and — you’re right — one knows it without benefit of radio or telephone. Here in my house I have no telephone, only the steward has one down in the office, nor do I have a radio, as I have forbidden any of the stupid, sordid daily noise of the outside world in the rooms where I make my home.

“The world holds no further threat for me. Some new world order may remove the way of life into which I was born and in which I have lived, forces of aggression may foment some revolution that will take both my freedom and my life. None of it matters. What matters is that I do not make any compromises with a world that I have judged and banished from my existence. Without the aid of any modern appliances, I knew that one day you would come to me again. I waited you out, because everything that is worth waiting for has its own season and its own logic. And now the moment has come.”

Guilt Does Not Reside In Our Acts But In The Intentions That Give Rise To Our Acts
“I am not quite certain,” says the General. “That is also why you’re here. It’s what we are discussing.” He leans back in his chair and crosses his arms calmly and with military precision. He says, “There is such a thing as factual truth. This and this happened. These things happened in this and this fashion and at this and this time. It isn’t hard to establish these things. The facts speak for themselves, as the saying goes; in the last years of our lives, facts confess themselves in ways that scream more loudly than a victim being tortured on the rack. By the end, everything has happened and the sum total is clear.

And yet, sometimes facts are no more than pitiful consequences, because guilt does not reside in our acts but in the intentions that give rise to our acts. Everything turns on our intentions. The great, ancient systems of religious law I have studied all know and preach this. A man may commit a disloyal or base act, even the worst, even murder, and yet remain blameless. The act does not constitute the whole truth, it is always and only a consequence, and if one day any of us has to become a judge and pronounce sentence, it is not enough for us to content ourselves with the facts in the police report, we also have to acquaint ourselves with motive.

The fact of your flight is easy to establish. But not your motive. Believe me, I have spent the last forty-one years turning over every possible reason for your incomprehensible act. No single examination of it led me to an answer. Only the truth can do that now.”

When The Act Of Killing Still Had A Symbolic And Religious Significance
“One evening our hosts invited Arab guests in our honor. Until then, their hospitality had been more or less in the European style; the owner of the house was both a judge and a dealer in contraband, one of the wealthiest men in the city. The guest rooms had English furniture, the bathtub was made of solid silver. But on this particular evening we saw something quite other. The guests arrived after sundown, only men, grand gentlemen with their servants. In the middle of the courtyard the fire was already lit, burning with that acrid smoke that comes from camel dung. Everyone sat down around it in silence. Krisztina was the only woman present. A lamb was brought, a white lamb, and our host took his knife and killed it with a movement I shall never forget … a movement like that is not something one learns, it is an Oriental movement straight out of the time when the act of killing still had a symbolic and religious significance, when it denoted sacrifice. That was how Abraham lifted the knife over Isaac when he was preparing to sacrifice him, that was the movement in the ancient temples when the sacrifice was made at the altar before the idols or the image of the godhead, and that was the movement that struck John the Baptist’s head from his body. . . it is utterly ancient. In the Orient it is innate to every man. Perhaps it is what first distinguished humans as a species, after the interval when they were part human, part animal…

“According to current wisdom, being human began with the opposable thumb, which made it possible to pick up a weapon or a tool. But perhaps being human begins with the soul and not the thumb. I don’t know…. The Arab slaughtered the lamb, and as he did so, this old man in his white burnous, which remained unspotted by blood, was like an oriental high priest performing the sacrifice. His eyes gleamed, for a moment he was young again, and all around him there was absolute silence. They sat around the fire, they watched the act of killing, the flash of the knife, the twitching of the lamb, the jet of blood, and their eyes gleamed also. And then I realized that these people are still intimately familiar with the act of killing, blood is something they know well, and the flash of the knife is as natural to them as the smile of a woman, or the rain. We understood — and I think Krisztina did, too, because at that moment she was seized with emotion, she blushed, then went white, breathed with difficulty, and turned her head away, as if she were witness to some passionate encounter — we understood that people in the East still retain their knowledge of the sacred symbolism of killing and its inner spiritual meaning. These dark, noble faces were all smiling, they pursed their lips and grinned in a kind of ecstasy as they watched, as if the killing were a warm, happy event, like an embrace. Curious, that in Hungarian our words for killing and embracing (Oles and oleles) echo and heighten each other.

“Well, of course we are westerners,” he says in another voice, sounding suddenly professional. “Westerners, or at least immigrants who settled here. For us, killing is a question of law and morality, or medicine, at any rate a sanctioned or prohibited act that is very precisely delineated within our system of thought. We kill, too, but in a more complicated way; we kill according to the dictates and authorization of the law. We kill to protect high principles and important human values, we kill to preserve the social order. It cannot be any other way.

We are Christians, we have a sense of guilt, we are the product of Western civilization. Our history, right up to the present, is filled with mass murder, but whenever we speak of killing, it is with eyes lowered and in tones of pious horror; we cannot do otherwise, it is our prescribed role. There is only the hunt,” he says, suddenly sounding almost happy. “Even then, we observe rules that are both chivalrous and practical, we protect the game according to the demands of the situation in any particular area, but the hunt is still a sacrifice, a distorted residue of what can still be recognized as a ritual that once formed part of a most ancient religious act. It is not true that the huntsman kills for the prize.

That has never been the case, not even in prehistoric times, when hunting was one of the few ways to obtain food. The hunt was always surrounded by religious tribal ritual. The good huntsman was always the leader of his tribe and also in some fashion a priest. Over the course of time, all that has naturally faded, but even in their faded form, the rituals are still with us. In my whole life I think I have loved nothing so much as the first light of dawn on the day of a hunt. You get up in darkness, you put on clothes quite different from those you wear every day, and clothes that have been selected for a purpose, in a lamplit room you eat a breakfast that is quite different from the usual breakfast: you fortify your heart with schnapps and eat a slice of cold meat with it.

I loved the smell of hunting clothes; the felt was impregnated with scents of the forest, the leaves, the air and blood, because you had hung the birds you had shot from your belt, and their blood had dirtied the jacket. But is blood dirty? … I don’t believe so. It is the most noble substance in the world, and in all eras the man who wished to say something inexpressibly grand to his God made a blood sacrifice.

And the oily, metallic smell of the gun. And the raw, sour smell of the leather. I loved all of it,” he says, sounding suddenly like an old man and almost ashamed, as if admitting to a weakness. “And then you step out of the house, your hunting comrades are already waiting, the sun isn’t up yet, the gamekeeper is holding the dogs on the lead and gives a murmured report on the events of the previous night. You take your place in the shooting brake, and it starts to move. The countryside is beginning to stir, the forest stretches and rubs its eyes sleepily. Everything smells so clean, as if you have entered another homeland that existed once before, at the beginning of the world.

The brake comes to a halt at the edge of the forest, you get out, your dog and your gamekeeper follow you silently. The wet leaves under the soles of your boots make almost no noise. The clearings are full of animal tracks. Now everything is coming to life around you. The light lifts and opens the roof of sky over the forest, as if the secret mechanism in the rigging-loft of a fairy-tale theater has begun to function.

Now the birds are beginning to sing and a deer crosses the forest path a long way ahead, about three hundred paces in front of you. You pull back into the undergrowth, and watch…. The animal stands still: it cannot see you, it cannot smell you because the wind is in your face, and yet it knows that its fate is awaiting it somewhere close. It lifts its head, turns its delicate neck, its body tenses, for a few moments it stands motionless, rooted to the spot, the way one can be paralyzed by the inevitable, absolutely helpless, because one knows that the menace is no accidental piece of bad luck but the necessary consequence of incalculable and incomprehensible circumstances.

Now you are already regretting that you are not carrying a cartridge pouch. You, too, stand frozen to the spot in the undergrowth; you, too, are bound inextricably to the moment; you, the huntsman. And you feel the tremor in your hands that is as old as man himself, you prepare for the kill and feel the forbidden joy, the strongest of all passions, the urge, neither good nor evil, that is part of all living creatures: the urge to be stronger, more skilled than your opponent, to preserve your concentration, to make no mistakes.

The leopard feels it as he tenses for the spring, the snake feels it as she rears to strike among the rocks, the falcon feels it in his plummeting dive, and a man feels it when he has his quarry in his sights. And you felt it, Konrad, perhaps for the first time in your life, when you shouldered your gun and took aim, intending to kill me.”

He bends over the little table that stands between them in front of the fireplace. He pours himself a sweet liqueur in a tiny glass and tests the surface of the crimson, syrupy liquid with the tip of his tongue, then, satisfied, sets the glass back down on the table again

Every Human Relationship Has A Tangible Core
The human night is filled with the crouching forms of dreams, desires, vanities, self-interest, mad love, envy, and the thirst for revenge, as the desert night conceals the puma, the hawk and the jackal. It is the moment when it is neither night nor day in man’s heart, because the wild beasts have slunk out of the hidden corners of our souls, and something rouses itself, transmits itself from mind to hand, something we thought we had tamed and trained to obedience over the course of years, decades even. In vain, we have lied to ourselves about the significance of this feeling, but it has proved stronger than all our intentions, indissolvable, unrelenting. Every human relationship has a tangible core, and we can think about it, analyze it all we want, it is unchangeable.

The truth is that for twenty-four years you have hated me with a burning passion akin to the fire of a great affair — even love. “You have hated me, and when any one emotion or passion occupies us entirely, the need for revenge crackles and glimmers among the flames that torment us. Passion has no footing in reason. Passion is indifferent to reciprocal emotion, it needs to express itself to the full, live itself to the very end, no matter if all it receives in return is kind feelings, courtesy, friendship, or mere patience. Every great passion is hopeless, if not it would be no passion at all but some cleverly calculated arrangement, an exchange of lukewarm interests.

You have hated me, and that makes for as strong a bond as if you had loved me. Why did you hate me? … I have had plenty of time to think about it. You have never accepted either money from me or presents, you never allowed our friendship to develop into a real relationship of brothers, and if I had not been so young back then, I would have known that this was a danger signal. Whoever refuses to accept a part wants the whole, wants everything.

You hated me as a child, from the very first moment we met at the academy, where the best our Empire had to offer were reared and educated; you hated me, because there was something in me that you lacked. What was it? What talent or quality? … You were always the better student, you were always unintentionally a chef d’oeuvre of diligence, goodness, and talent, for you possessed an instrument, in the true sense of that word, you had a secret — music. You were related to Chopin, you were proud and reserved.

“But deep inside you was a frantic longing to be something or someone other than you are. It is the greatest scourge a man can suffer, and the most painful. Life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of the world. We all of us must come to terms with what and who we are, and recognize that this wisdom is not going to earn us any praise, that life is not going to pin a medal on us for recognizing and enduring our own vanity or egoism or baldness or our potbelly. No, the secret is that there’s no reward and we have to endure our characters and our natures as best we can, because no amount of experience or insight is going to rectify our deficiencies, our self-regard, or our cupidity. We have to learn that our desires do not find any real echo in the world. We have to accept that the people we love do not love us, or not in the way we hope. We have to accept betrayal and disloyalty, and, hardest of all, that someone is finer than we are in character or intelligence.

“Over the course of my seventy-five years here in the middle of the forest, I have learned this much. But you have not been able to accept it,” he says softly, definitively. Then he stops, and his eyes stare blindly into the half-darkness.

One Can Kill A Friend, But Death Itself Cannot Undo A Friendship
“Evidently there is no external power that can alter human relationships. You killed something inside me, you ruined my life, but we are still friends. And tonight, I am going to kill something inside you, and then I shall let you go back to London or to the tropics or to hell, and yet still you will be my friend. This too is something we both need to know before we talk about the hunt and everything that happened afterwards.

Friendship is no ideal state of mind; it is a law, and a strict one, on which the entire legal systems of great cultures were built. It reaches beyond personal desires and self-regard in men’s hearts, its grip is greater than that of sexual desire, and it is proof against disappointment, because it asks for nothing. One can kill a friend, but death itself cannot undo a friendship that reaches back to childhood; its memory lives on like some act of silent heroism, and indeed there is in friendship an element of ancient heroic feats, not the clash of swords and the rattle of sabers, but the selfless human act.

And as you raised the gun to kill me, our friendship was more alive than ever before in the twenty-four years we had known each other. One remembers such moments because they become part of the content and meaning of the rest of one’s life. And I remember.

The Shape of Fate
Outside, beyond the windows, the landscape and the town are invisible in the darkness; not a single lantern is burning in the night. “One can also shape what happens to one. One shapes it, summons it, takes hold of the inevitable. It’s the human condition. A man acts, even when he knows from the very onset that his act will be fatal. He and his fate are inseparable, they have a pact with each other that molds them both. It is not true that fate slips silently into our lives. It steps in through the door that we have opened, and we invite it to enter.

Perhaps this entire way of life which we have known since birth, this house, this dinner, even the words we have used this evening to discuss the questions of our lives, perhaps they all belong to the past. There’s too much tension, too much animosity, too much craving for revenge in us all. We look inside ourselves and what do we find? An animosity that time damped down for a while but now is bursting out again. So why should we expect anything else of our fellow men? And you and I, too, old and wise, at the end of our lives, we, too, want revenge…Against whom? Each other? Or against the memory of someone who is no longer with us? Pointless.

And yet it burns on in our hearts. Why should we expect better of the world, when it teems with unconscious desires and their all-too-deliberate consequences, and young men are bayoneting the hands of young men of other nations, and strangers are hacking each other’s backs to ribbons, and all laws and conventions have been voided and instinct rules, and the universe is on fire?..  

Revenge. I came back from a war in which I could have died, yet didn’t, because I was waiting for my opportunity to take revenge. `How?’ you may ask. `What kind of revenge?’ I can see from your face that you do not understand this need. `What revenge is still possible between two old men who are already waiting for death? Everyone is dead, what point is there in revenge?’ you seem to be saying. And this is my answer: Yes — revenge. That is what I have lived for, for forty-one years, that is why I neither killed myself nor allowed others to kill me, and that is why I have not killed anyone myself, thank heaven.

The time for revenge has come, just as I have wished for so long. My revenge is that you have come here across the world, through the war, over mine-infested seas, to the scene of the crime, to answer to me and to uncover the truth together. That is my revenge. And now you must answer.

I have thought a great deal about this too. Is the idea of fidelity not an appalling egoism and also as vain as most other human concerns? When we demand fidelity, are we wishing for the other person’s happiness? And if that person cannot be happy in the subtle prison of fidelity, do we really prove our love by demanding fidelity nonetheless? And if we do not love that person in a way that makes her happy, do we have the right to expect fidelity or any other sacrifice? Now, in my old age, I would not dare answer these questions as unequivocally as I would have done forty-one years ago, when Krisztina left me alone in your apartment, where she had been so often before me, where you had assembled all those objects in order to receive her, where two people close to me betrayed and deceived me so vulgarly, so ignominiously, and — as I realize now — with such banality. That is what happened.” His voice is indifferent, almost bored.

“And what people call `deceit,’ the sad and banal rebellion of a body against a situation and a third person — in retrospect is almost alarmingly a matter of indifference, almost the source of pity like a quarrel or an accident. I did not understand this back then. I stood in your secret apartment as if I were taking in the details of a crime, I stared at the furniture, the French bed…. When one is young and one’s own wife deceives one with the only friend who is closer than a brother, it is natural to feel that the world has crashed around one. It is inevitable, because jealousy, disappointment, and vanity are all excruciating. But it passes … not consciously, and not from one day to the next. Years later, the fury is still there — and yet finally it is over, just as life will be one day. I went back to the castle, to my room, and waited for Krisztina. I waited to kill her or to have her tell me the truth so that I could forgive her. I waited until evening, then I went to the hunting lodge, because she had not come. Which was perhaps childish…. Now, looking back, when I want to pass judgment on myself and others, I see this pride, this waiting, this departure, as somewhat childish. But that’s how things are, do you see, and neither reason nor experience can do much to change one’s stubborn nature. You, too, must know this now.

Details vs Essentials
Finally, there is no sense in investigating the details. But one has an obligation to seek out the essentials, the truth of things, because otherwise, why has one lived at all? Why has one endured these forty-one years?


Sándor Márai And The Twitch Upon The Thread

May 25, 2011

Sándor Márai

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.
Revelation 21:5-7


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