AHF Cultural News: Sándor Márai
4/12/2007 - The New Yorker reviews Sandor Marai's "The Rebels." In its April 2 issue, “The New Yorker” magazine published a lengthy, scholarly essay about Sandor Marai and his novel, “The Rebels” (“A Zendulok”), recently published in an English translation. “Sandor Marai is getting younger,” says Arthur Phillips in the opening sentence of his essay and explains that “Embers” was the first Marai novel translated into English (“A Gyertyak Csonkig Egnek”), which Marai wrote when he was forty-two years old; “Casanova in Bolzano” (“Vendegjatek Bolzanoban”) was the next novel in English, which was written when the author was forty; and the “The Rebels,” written when Marai was thirty, is the latest English translation of his novels. In short, English-speaking readers are getting to know Marai in a reverse chronological order. Somewhat due to this fact, Phillips also suggests that those who admired Marai’s dark, somber prose in “Embers” may be surprised by the tone and language of “The Rebels,” – “…a darkly comic,…funnier, and more extravagantly imaginative… than those [later] books might have led one to expect.”
Phillips offers a detailed biographical sketch of Marai’s life, considers his place in 20th century Hungarian and European literature, and reviews the major themes in Marai’s literary output. He calls Marai a chronicler of the life, struggles, and disintegration of Hungary’s middle class between the two world wars. Phillips quotes Marai: “I see the whole [class] disintegrating. Perhaps this is my life’s, my writing’s sole, true duty: to delineate the course of this disintegration.” Phillips sees similarities between Marai and other European writers of the period – Thomas Mann, Joseph Roth, Robert Musil.
Phillips analyzes “The Rebels” in considerable detail, and draws on the other Marai books as well, to draw a fuller portrait of the writer. He notes that Marai uses a recurring theme in all three novels – “a gyertya csonkig egett,” – the candle had burned right down, and concludes that the image obviously spoke to Marai. He also cites the curious fact that before Marai escaped from Hungary, he spent his time reading not foreign authors or the great Hungarian authors but “gulping down second-tier Hungarian literature, like a camel preparing for a desert crossing,” because he was aware that that was something he would never again find elsewhere.
The long essay ends with a quote from Marai about the fear he felt when he escaped from Hungary, and Phillips’ explanation that “fear gripped him only as he left the past behind, and faced –like so many of his characters—an uncertain future by a dim light.”
Illustration by Istvan Banyai
Arthur Phillips’ essay is printed below.- Zoltan Bagdy, Chair AHF Cultural Affairs Committee
Sándor Márai keeps getting younger. Twelve years after he committed suicide, in 1989, at the age of eighty-nine, Knopf published the first American edition of his novel “Embers,” which had originally appeared in Hungary when he was forty-two. That launched Márai’s career in this country. Three years later came “Casanova in Bolzano,” written when he was forty. Now, courtesy of George Szirtes, we have the first English translation of “The Rebels” (Knopf; $24.95), Márai’s fourth novel, published when he was only thirty. It’s a darkly comic, war-ravaged coming-of-age tale that displays much of the genius visible in his later works, but it’s also funnier and more extravagantly imaginative than those books might have led one to expect. In 1930, of course, Márai had not yet experienced most of the great tragedies that lay in store for his nation and for him.
Márai was born in 1900, in a town in the Hungarian provinces called Kassa, where his father was a lawyer and his mother a schoolteacher, and he came to Budapest as a young man to make a career as a journalist. He succeeded, but art rapidly took precedence: volumes of poetry appeared, then plays, and a first novel when he was twenty-four. By then, the Versailles Treaty had transformed his home town into Košice, Czechoslovakia. War and politics were redrawing the map of Márai’s life, and they did not stop until after his death.
He published more than sixty books in his lifetime, almost half of them novels, and from the nineteen-twenties to the nineteen-forties he was considered one of Hungary’s leading literary men. As the Hungarian-American scholar Albert Tezla notes in an introduction to a memoir that Márai wrote in 1972, he was often described by critics and by himself as a “middle-class writer.” To American ears, it’s an odd distinction; our writers are either literary or commercial, but for him class identity was stronger. A character of his seems to be pronouncing an authorial credo when he says, “I am a bourgeois. I am deliberately so.” Márai took the label, and the responsibilities that he felt it entailed, very seriously. He considered that his class, at its best, embodied the highest European traditions: liberal democracy, enterprise and creativity, intellectual curiosity, and duty tempered with tolerance. After the First World War, though, he saw his class fail to live up to those ideals, and he blamed its selfish refusal to shape a democracy for Hungary’s interwar political troubles, and its slide toward Fascism. The middle-class writer’s task now was to write an obituary: “I see the whole [class] disintegrating. Perhaps this is my life’s, my writing’s sole, true duty: to delineate the course of this disintegration.”
He chronicled it from within a disintegrating nation. The Versailles Treaty reduced Hungary’s size by two-thirds, and political chaos followed. Order finally took the form of the authoritarian reign of Miklós Horthy, who was proclaimed Regent, although Hungary had no king, and who was still called “Admiral,” although Hungary had lost its coast under the treaty. Horthy’s regime, which Márai detested, brought Hungary into the Second World War as a lukewarm ally of Nazi Germany, and Márai responded with what he called “internal emigration”—“by turning completely inward, toward my work.”
Living under a dismal government, on the wrong side of another world
war, Márai found himself preoccupied with the problems of the past,
and his fiction from this era—“Casanova in Bolzano”
and “Embers”—explored how history is claimed and reinterpreted
in people’s efforts to determine the future. In “Casanova
in Bolzano,” set in the seventeen-fifties, the middle-aged Casanova
returns to the town where, years earlier, he lost a duel over a young
girl. The man who wounded him, the Duke of Parma, is now old and dying,
and the girl has become the Duke’s wife. In a series of dialogues
in Casanova’s hotel room, the Duke and the Duchess attempt to determine
the meaning of that duel, to contradictory purposes. The Duke wants the
Duchess’s unqualified devotion; the Duchess wants Casanova to acknowledge
her as his one true love. With their happiness at stake, both describe
to Casanova a future based on their own understanding of the past, and
both try to charm or bully him into seeing events as they do.
In “Casanova in Bolzano,” when the conversations end, the Venetian lover is left alone with his thoughts. “The candles had guttered,” Márai writes, “but were still smoking.” In the closing pages of “Embers,” after the long debate about the past, the old general says, “Look at that, the candles are burned right down.” And, indeed, the image provides the book’s Hungarian title, “A Gyertyák Csonkig Égnek” (“The Candles Burn Right Down”). In “The Rebels,” a dozen years before, a scene is set with the line “A gyertya csonkig égett”: “The candle had burned right down. They could see only outlines in the darkness.” The image obviously spoke to Márai. By the failing light of a nominally independent Hungary, he wrestled with the question of when things had gone so horribly wrong. For all his efforts to understand, the future arrived noisily in 1944, and his fruitful period of internal emigration came to an end. The Nazis invaded their sluggish partner; rabid Hungarian Fascists dispatched Admiral Horthy, who was a moderate by comparison, to Germany; the Hungarian role in the Holocaust began in earnest; and Márai retreated to the countryside. There he was soon overrun, from the other direction, by the Soviet invasion.
After the German surrender, and a dangerous year spent living in close quarters with the Red Army, he returned to the ruins of his Budapest home, which had been bombed to the foundations. He clambered over his crushed top hat, his candlesticks, his photographs, and salvaged from what had been a six-thousand-volume library a single book, “On the Care of a Middle-Class Dog.” Considering his belief that “the arts exist to keep us from falling into ruin,” it must have required great courage to go back to writing.
Márai was able to publish for a while longer, as he watched the Hungarian Communists, with Soviet backing and the acquiescence of many other writers, seize power. When he realized that he would no longer be able to emigrate into his work—that he would not even be allowed to keep a dignified silence in the face of totalitarian oppression—he left his homeland, for the last time, in the summer of 1948. After sojourns in Switzerland and Italy, he came to the United States, living in New York and then settling in San Diego when he was seventy-nine. Even after Hungarian liberalization, in the nineteen-seventies, he refused to visit his homeland or allow his books to be published there unless two unlikely demands were met: that the Soviet occupation end and free elections be held. In 1989, having lost his wife, his adopted son, his sister, and his brothers, he declared himself “a thoughtless guest who has overstayed his welcome.” But death did not come quickly enough. “I am beginning to lose my patience,” he said. Within a year of his suicide, the Soviets were withdrawing, and the Hungarians had held free elections.
Rewind to May, 1918. The First World War is coming to a bad end, and a middle class still exists in provincial Austria-Hungary. That is the setting of “The Rebels,” a novel about young men who, coming of age as their world is destroyed, confuse growing up with dying, adulthood with war.
The Great War has another six months to run, but in an unnamed and almost completely empty town its toll is painfully clear. “The town dozes among mountains,” Márai writes, but, if he raises expectations of a romantic, postcard Europe, it’s only to dash them: “A good spring moon tends to magnify whatever it illuminates. It would be very hard to give a proper scientific explanation for this. All objects—houses, public squares, whole towns—puff themselves up with spring moonlight, swelling and bloating like corpses in the river. The river dragged such corpses through town at a run.” The brief panorama of the village includes the butcher shop (“great swelling animal carcasses hanging on hooks…a calf’s head, its eyes closed, black blood dripping from its nostrils”) and a lawyer’s study (“Several thousand butterflies lined the walls in glass cases.…He carried the cyanide bottle and the butterfly net around with him everywhere.…He had lost two sons in the war”). Trains still arrive at the pretty little station nestled amid snowcapped mountains, but the passengers are often the war dead. Buckets of lime and bored sanitation workers await them.
Even within this desolation, however, youth persists. Ábel and three of his friends have just finished their high-school examinations. They look out onto the adult world they are about to join, and are disgusted. The four young men face an unpleasant prospect: “In six weeks’ time they would be in uniform and, with one great effort, even if the training dragged on, they’d be out at the front by the end of August.”
Though their fathers either are at war or have been damaged by it, the boys live in terror of them: “There was no limit to the power of fathers.” Béla, the dim son of the rich grocer, “was as terrified of his father as simple people are of natural disasters.” Childhood had meant being beaten for “not holding a knife and fork in the proper manner,” and wetting one’s pants in fear. Erno’s father, a cobbler who has been broken, body and soul, by the war, served as a hangman at the front and is proud that his colonel allowed him to execute officers, not just common soldiers. Back home, he torments his son in fits of shell-shocked insanity. Márai describes each boy’s life in terms of smells: “Tibor’s house was discreetly scented with lavender, the smell of genteel poverty and sickness, combined with the rather more combative smell of cured leather.” Tibor, the golden child of the town’s colonel, was in second grade when his father horse-whipped him for being unable to remove the man’s riding boots.
Joined by Tibor’s brother, who has returned from the front with only one arm (throughout the book, he is referred to as “the one-armed one”), the young men rebel. They drink and gamble, of course, play mind games with one another and confound their teachers, make up stories, smoke and mope. They steal for no real purpose, and order bespoke suits in lunatic designs—costumes they wear only in one another’s company, in a secret hideout in a crumbling spa hotel called the Peculiar.
The boys’ early escapades have a nearly slapstick quality, which may surprise admirers of the stern “Embers,” with its gripping speeches about duty and friendship, but “The Rebels” gives a child’s perspective on the virtues that old men explore in the later book. The boys, with their outlandish clothes and useless stolen goods, pay ironic tribute to the values of their fathers; hard work and daring are cherished, as long as they’re pointless. Béla, Tibor, and the rest will toil like madmen to learn a few phrases of Swedish, but they refuse to do their Tacitus homework. They hope that in their hideout they will find a place where “real life could finally begin,” a life that “wasn’t like their fathers’ lives.”
They come to the attention of a travelling actor, a mincing, middle-aged outsider more than willing to hang around with a group of teen-agers who admire his eccentricity and apparent experience, “lurking with them in a befitting manner.” The actor leads them into disgrace, and, in short order, their games are over. The boys are trapped, betrayed by the adult world but also by one of their own, caught in the teeth of a con game. While there’s some suspense after this (Will they find their way to safety? Will their families protect them? How much of their misbehavior will come to light?), plot, as in “Embers” and “Casanova in Bolzano,” is secondary to the exploration of character.
As a coming-of-age tale, “The Rebels,” for all its black humor, exists within a genre that has considerable currency in literature and cinema. Hollywood has had no shortage of poor kids driven mad by envy of their wealthier pals, causeless rebels, anxious adolescents wrestling with sexuality—no shortage, indeed, of youthful games that bleed into adult betrayals. Like other rebels, Márai’s characters struggle to understand love and friendship and the fuzzy line between the two. (“I love you.…Maybe it is because you are beautiful,” Ábel tells Tibor. “You’re not, if I may say, particularly bright.”) They must untangle loyalty, duty, individuality, the divisive power of class and wealth. Ábel shows signs of eventually becoming a writer. “Beware of such,” the itinerant actor says of writers who hold themselves back from the action, the better to observe it. “Sin begins the moment you leave the circle and watch from outside.”
The artist, writer, and actor as corrupting or otherwise morally dubious influences is a notion that turns up in both of those later Márai novels, and also in the works of his elders. There’s just something about 1918; the book’s pervasive moral and physical sickness (we get characters who are bedridden, crippled, shell-shocked, insane, mass-murdering) may remind you of other novels from the twenties and thirties—Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain,” or Joseph Roth’s “The Radetzky March,” or Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities.” That’s neither entirely coincidental nor to Márai’s discredit; he breathed the same air as those great writers. By 1942, with “Embers,” Márai had achieved an individual style. That novel—with its long, swirling monologues, its psychological depth, its examination of the layered meanings in a single, long-ago betrayal—is unique, inimitable. Back in 1930, though, he was still writing books that were merely very, very good.
But even when dealing with familiar motifs or inherited plots, he proves his power. In “The Rebels,” stock characters—the invalid mother, the poor boy with ambition, the fruity actor, the wounded veteran back from the front, the merciless Jewish pawnbroker—pulse with life. And the language is often breathtaking: “He danced on half-naked. His heavy breasts shook with each maneuver and his bare back shimmered like pale bacon in the spotlight.” Márai’s wit is displayed on every page, and he can shift smoothly from vicious irony to heartbreak: Tibor “represented the two-armed branch of the Prockauer family.…The one-armed one tended to lie in bed during storms with a pillow over his head.”
Unlike other writers who were forced into exile by the horrors of twentieth-century Europe, Sándor Márai did not oversee the creation of an English-language persona, and that is part of the reason he died in obscurity. During the four decades in which he lived away from his homeland, he wrote only in Hungarian. Perhaps he was too old—he left Hungary when he was forty-eight—or perhaps he was too attached to his native tongue. In his memoir, he describes his last-minute hesitation before escaping from Hungary as the Communists tightened their grip: “I didn’t want to leave my native land without taking something with me for the long journey. Something that I would never again find elsewhere.” His keepsake may strike one as odd:
I did nothing else but read.…I didn’t open books by foreign writers. I read the works of Hungarian writers. But not the…classics…not even the great generation of our own century…but those of the less noted.…I kept sampling this pure, powerful prose like someone who has stumbled on a buried cellar where he discovers a barrel filled with an old vintage.…I began to search the works of “the second set” of Hungarian writers for what I wanted to take with me, because I knew I would never find any trace of them abroad.
When the borders were closing, and the secret police were circling, and the publishing house was telling him to stop writing, and his income had trickled to nothing, and his friends were leaving or being arrested, he spent an extra year in libraries, gulping down second-tier Hungarian literature, like a camel preparing for a desert crossing.
He may have despaired that he would ever reach the other side. In the event, his suicide, the same year Hungary cast off Communism, marked the beginning of his restoration in his homeland. He is now read widely and taught in schools, and he received, posthumously, Hungary’s highest literary prize. (A statue of him, however, stands in Košice, now Czech-less Slovakia, implying that he is not so much a Hungarian writer as an Austro-Hungarian writer.) Meanwhile, American readers must approach him through the imperfect correspondence of translation. “Embers” had a layover in German before arriving in English. The very accomplished Anglo-Hungarian poet George Szirtes, who also translated “Casanova in Bolzano,” renders “The Rebels” in luminous prose, albeit with something of a British accent. (Horsemen wear “breeches” and brothel guests pay a “tariff”; one character uses the term “haroosh”—it means, research reveals, a rumpus or a witch hunt, more or less—which seems to be slang used in the British bureaucracy of colonial India.) In the meantime, there are still two dozen novels in Márai’s native language, bristling with u, o, and sz, that were left behind when the great middle-class writer rode the train across the border. “We left the bridge and traveled on in the starstudded night toward the world where no one was waiting for us,” Márai wrote of his departure. “In this moment—for the first time in my life—I really felt fear.” After two world wars, after the destruction of his home and his career, after his country’s colonization by Russia, fear gripped him only as he left the past behind, and faced—like so many of his characters—an uncertain future by a dim light.
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