Commentary Magazine

From Hungary

Hungarian literature has never quite been entirely in or entirely out of fashion among English readers. Since the years before the Second World War, when Hungarian writing first made itself known to English-speaking audiences, up through the present day, when the works of major writers like the Nobel laureate Imre Kertész and the novelist and essayist George Konrad can be easily obtained, Hungarian authors in translation have enjoyed a series of successes d’estime that has never quite crossed over into the ubiquity and global renown of other Central European literatures. No Hungarian author has ever attained the prominence outside his country enjoyed in the 1920s and onward by the Czech writers Jaroslav Hašek, author of the enduring wartime satire The Good Soldier Švejk,and Milan Kundera, the novelist of Eros and totalitarianism, nor the heights achieved by the Polish poet Czes?aw Mi?osz.

Some of this disparity is explicable by the fact that Hungarian literature is linguistically isolated: the roots of the Hungarian language are even today somewhat unclear to philologists, and it has proved much harder to entice potential translators to the study of Magyar than to the study of Slavic or Baltic tongues. And some of it can be explained, too, by the relegation of translation, once a primary project of literary modernism, to the second tier of publishing, to smaller houses with smaller budgets and less advertising power. (It’s worth noting that the single contemporary publishing house dedicated wholly to the translation into English of foreign works both contemporary and classic, Archipelago, has been forced to operate as a nonprofit company in order to survive.)

How, then, to explain the strange case of Sándor Márai? Márai was one of the most prolific writers in contemporary Hungarian letters, producing more than 46 books, the vast majority of them novels. He abandoned Hungary in 1948 for Italy and then—after a series of difficult peregrinations—America, where he spent the remainder of his life, continuing to write in his mother tongue until his suicide by gunshot in San Diego in 1989. An impressive résumé, certainly, but no more so than that of Imre Kertész, a Holocaust survivor. Yet Kertész struggles to find publishers and reviewers here, despite his Nobel, whereas Márai has had a book appear in English roughly every two years since the beginning of this decade, released by major houses (Knopf and Vintage) and with a growing following. At a time when Americans seem to have lost almost all interest in the work of literary writers who do not compose in English, Márai stands out as a prominent exception. What makes Márai so much more attractive to America’s culture club than, say, Kertész?

One might chalk it up to the vagaries of taste. After all, literary reputation, as even a cursory look at the ranks and relative worth of contemporary authors will demonstrate, can hardly be called meritocratic. Yet his success is not arbitrary. His books resonate with Americans for a reason.

But what? What is the source of this attraction?


Of Márai’s extensive corpus, four novels have been translated: Embers, Casanova at Bolzano, The Rebels, and Esther’s Inheritance. Embers recounts the events of a single night in which two aging men, longtime romantic and social rivals, re-examine a catastrophe that affected them both deeply. Casanova at Bolzano is an imagining of the weeks the famed adventurer Giacomo Casanova spent in the northern Italian city after his escape from the Leads, Venice’s dreaded prison. The Rebels takes place in Hungary on the eve of the First World War and examines the lives and crimes of a group of disaffected bourgeois youth. Esther’s Inheritance is the shattering first-person narrative of a woman still in emotional thrall to the husband who abandoned her years previously, and the disaster that comes of his re-entry into her life.

Their locations, physical and temporal, differ but not tremendously: Three are set in Hungary, one (Casanova in Bolzano) in Italy; three are set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one (again Casanova) in the 18th. Two are urban, Casanova and Rebels, focusing on the life of midsize European cities and their better-off citizens; two ex-urban, Embers, which takes place on a ducal estate, and Esther’s Story, set in a prosperous Budapest suburb. All four examine the strains love and sex place on the human character; all four propose, through manifold means, the inescapability of the past, whether it obtains through our persistent memories, as is the case in Embers, or through the simple fact that those we have loved or hated continue to exercise power over us, even at remote distances, as Márai implies in Esther’s Inheritance.

These themes do not arm Márai’s work with some special, sui generis appeal. The locations and languages may be unfamiliar, but Márai’s formal and thematic preoccupations are well within the standard portfolio of what one might expect from a well-made, reasonably intelligent novel. There is, after all, nothing especially Hungarian, or even European, about meditations on the meaning and play of love and sex in our lives, sterling examples of which we can find in Casanova at Bolzano:

Here was a man who was genuinely, most resolutely a man, just that and no more, the way an oak tree is simply an oak tree and a rock is just a rock. . . . A man who is not trying to prove anything by raising his voice or rattling his sword, who asks no favors except those he himself can grant . . . every atom of his being, every nerve, every spark of his spirit and every muscle of his body is devoted to the power that is life.

And Esther’s Inheritance:

It was September, gentle mild days. We sat there with that familiar sense of security that smacks partly of shipwreck and partly of happiness without desire. Come on now, I thought, what is there left for Lajos to take away? . . . The silver? Ridiculous idea: what were a few bent silver spoons worth? I calculated that Lajos would have passed fifty now, in fact he would have been fifty-three that summer. If that kind of thing did help, let him take them.

So does his appeal, then, reside in the Central European flavor of books like The Rebels? Perhaps. The Austrian novelist Joseph Roth (1894-1939), who took on similar themes—the politically and culturally fraught nature of life in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—has enjoyed a popularity in revival and translation exceeding even Márai’s. And passages like the following from The Rebels show Roth’s influence clearly (especially that of Roth’s masterwork, The Radetzky March):

People live together but there are long periods where they know nothing of each other’s lives. Then one has the sensations that the other has vanished from the map. This was one corner of the world: his aunt’s furniture inherited from his mother, the garden, his father, the fiddle playing, Jules Verne, and the walk in the cemetery with his aunt on All Soul’s Day. This world had such power that nothing external could destroy it, not even the war. Just once a year some unforeseen thing broke through a chink in it, another world. Everything changed. . . . The hothouse became a primeval forest. And his aunt like a corpse, or less than that.

And yet, as masterly as the above passages are, they do not express Márai’s style fully. There is another side to his compositional philosophy, and it is not entirely praiseworthy. Márai is, as Roth and Robert Musil were before him, what might be called an essayistic novelist. His works feature long interpolations of speculative thought as an essential part of their structure. Even in discussing profoundly earthly matters, like sexual jealousy or the hysteria of adolescence, Márai adopts the position that these affairs are inextricable from discussion of their higher abstract or historical meaning, not to be teased out by exegetes but rather simply and openly present in the novel itself. Here, for example, is one of the antagonists of Embers, accusing his interlocutor of a long-ago attempted murder (his own, no less):

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. . . . Something rouses itself, transmits itself from mind to hand. . . . In vain we have lied to ourselves about the significance of this feeling, but it has proved stronger than all our intentions. . . . Every human relationship has a tangible core, and we can think about it, analyze it all we want, but 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.

This sort of divagation has at times been mistakenly considered part of the legacy of literary modernism, but in fact it has been present in the form of the novel from its origins in the 16th century, in Don Quixote and Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, and other works of early modernity, through the works of Laurence Sterne in the 18th century and, of course, Tolstoy’s own interpolations of essays on the meaning of history in War and Peace. And it is the key to Márai’s distinctive quality as a novelist.

The problem with the novel-as-essay is that in the hands of all but the most gifted and perspicacious of writers, and the most assured of stylists, it lends itself to eruptions of psychological and philosophical didacticism as no other art form does. And Márai, sad to say, suffers—albeit eloquently—from this didactic vice, which makes itself felt at the most crucial junctures of his work. The entire final section of Casanova at Bolzano is the most egregious example: Casanova and his former lover, the young wife of the duke of Parma, whose long-delayed encounter has formed the central point of narrative tension in the novel, finally meet by the perverse connivance of the duke himself and begin, at great length, to discuss their situation. Here is Europe’s most famous seducer, as Márai imagines him:

There is a secret bond between us, Francesca, because love has touched us both. It is a great gift and a great sadness. It is a great gift because I do in fact love you, in my fashion and because I regard my love as an art; but it is also a great sadness because my love will never be easy or happy, can never grow wings and soar like a dove . . . because ours is a different kind of love from this.

The duchess answers in a similar vein:

Do you imagine that I am like a simple child, chasing the shadows on the past, when I finally write the words that inform you and, yes, the duke and the whole world that I must see you? It may be that I am not quite so simple and childlike, Giacomo, my love. Perhaps it was I that directed the groom’s footsteps so that he should walk into the trap set for him by the duke? . . . Perhaps I, too, have struck a bargain tonight, and this bargain may be as binding as the coffin, even if it bears no seal and contains no vows?

They go on like this for 30-odd pages, speaking in the most explicit and authorial way about their governing passions and philosophies. (The young duchess, in the book’s last chapter, even resorts to writing a long and similarly explicative letter—reproduced in full—to Casanova.)

The voice of the historical Casanova—the author of an uncommonly clever, witty, and rueful memoir that runs to nine volumes—cannot be heard in these reflections; and it seems beyond all possibility that a young woman of any century would address her former lover in such elevated, almost academic terms.

Strange to say, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is not Márai’s merits but his flaws that have so endeared him to an American readership. American literature, especially in the postwar years, has displayed a strong streak of similar didacticism, with characters speaking at a belief-defying level of knowledge about their own psychologies, and omniscient narrators explaining in minute and schoolteacherly detail precisely what is happening on the page. The examples are almost too many to name; they span the ranks of American literature, from Saul Bellow’s Augie March to various winsome figures in contemporary novels.

We seem, as a reading culture, to value the explicit and static over the ambiguous; difficulty or psychological mystery is a prescription for literary obscurity. Even in the most serious, definitive works of American literature—Huckleberry Finn, for example, or Moby Dick—this didactic quality is present and inextricably bound up with the power and penetration of those books. Consider Huck’s famous statement that if saving Jim means going to hell, he’ll go to hell. Consider Ahab’s pentametric speeches and Ishmael’s incalculably vast and inexplicable knowledge about the physical, historical world. These characters, these books, could not exist were it not for their authors’ several decisions to endow their creations with self-awareness identical to their own.

Epiphanies about salvation might well occur to an illiterate rural boy; a seaman might well have become, after an encounter with a monstrous whale, an expert on cetology. Long, perfectly formed soliloquies on the metaphysical nature of love would never come pouring from the lips of either Casanova or his beloved enemy. (They might well arise in the mind of, say, an intensely cultivated member of Europe’s 20th-century bourgeoisie.) All this is not, of course, to demean such explicitness but merely to point out that, like all other philosophies of composition, in the wrong hands and put to use in service of the wrong ends, it can destroy the already precarious relation literary art bears to reality.

No matter. American culture overall has been fixated on the psychologically explicit for generations in nearly every realm. Small wonder, then, that Márai’s work has found such a warm reception here. As he was a writer of considerable gifts, it is hard to grudge his work its success. But it is hard to believe it will endure.

About the Author

Sam Munson, who reviewed Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box in May 2006, is online editor of COMMENTARY.

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