Portraits of a Marriage: One man, two wives, nine perspectives

The fifth novel by the late Sandor Marai to be translated into English in the past decade confirms his status as one of the great authors of the last century.

Portraits of a Marriage by Sandor Marai; translated into English by George Szirtes (Knopf)
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"It was not my muscles she was weighing up, but my soul," decides Peter, one of the characters in Sandor Marai's novel Portraits of a Marriage, as he proposes marriage to his maid Judit while she stokes the fireplace, then tries to interpret the long silence that is her response. It is an inflammatory silence, more provoking than speech, and it causes him, for the first time in his life, to lose all control of himself.

"The soul": novelists might be divided into two camps based on what they think of this word, whether their narrators or their characters use it with irony or in faith. The camp of Marai (if we wanted to cite one contemporary adherent it might be Orhan Pamuk) believes passionately in this word as the human root and mysterious quiddity that adult conversation, and therefore novelistic narration, must never shirk from. In the work of most novelists, a thought such as Peter's would actually seem like an instance of the writer laughing at the character, through a violent, almost bathetic juxtaposition of the corporeal with the ineffable. But here we know that it is not just the character taking himself seriously, but also the writer.

Portraits of a Marriage, translated by the Hungarian poet and critic George Szirtes, is the fifth novel, after Embers, Casanova in Bolzano, The Rebels, and Esther's Inheritance, by Marai to appear posthumously in English in the last decade. Reading a few pages of any of these shows that they are the books of a writer who is an adept of a great mass of situations and structures in politics, society, culture and, finally, "human relationships" (another favourite phrase in Marai).

Marai was born in 1900, in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, saw out two world wars in Hungary, then fled to Italy after persecution at home by the communists in the 1940s. From his books we can see why he was resented, because characters in his novels are repeatedly sceptical of the prospect of human beings making themselves new through revolutionary principles, or of violent justice ever becoming the promised peaceful justice. Marai might be considered a certain kind of conservative.

Marai finally ended up in America, where personal and artistic freedom seemed to him to have reached the other extreme, ending up in a mass of trivialities that were the very obverse of the moral seriousness attached to the word "art" in hierarchical or totalitarian regimes. (This difference, seen from the American side, is what so attracts Philip Roth to his lesser-known contemporaries in Eastern Europe in his book of interviews, Shop Talk).

But perhaps Marai would have been disappointed anywhere. Even when set against novelists more or less of his time and from his own part of the world who shared something of his spirit - Kafka, Musil, Hermann Broch, Joseph Roth, Witold Gombrowicz - he seems unusually serious, rigorous, fervent, forever linking particulars to universals and realities to ideals. The signal quality of Marai's work is that it is not just the writer or the narrator who is invested in formulating a theory of human nature from the particulars of the story being told. The characters are equally committed to such a project: each one of these eloquent people is a psychologist, a poet, a prophet, and a philosopher, and knows it.

People in Marai are passionate generalisers, distillers of experience, forever funnelling the "I" of their stories into the "we" of what they are convinced are inexorable human laws. They are never happier than when they are allowed the space for a lengthy monologue (against these effusions, Marai's actual dialogue always seems extremely clipped and sparse). In a fine comic moment in Portraits of a Marriage, a woman who has been telling her lover her life story over the course of a whole night discovers, at dawn, that he has fallen asleep. The reason why this seems a particularly good, sly joke is that the reader has perhaps never felt more awake than at the end of this novelistic night.

Marai's novels have no need of continuous incidents, because a single dramatic event - a quarrel between two old friends in Embers, a betrayal by a lover in Esther's Inheritance - is enough to keep his protagonists preoccupied for years, decades, the whole of their lives. The same event is seen first from the point of view of the actor and the acted upon, the betrayer and the betrayed, the man and the woman (male and female nature are always very distinct things in Marai), each time memorably cast into a new mould that brings to bear upon the incident all the important facts and themes of the speaker's life. Marai's protagonists are, through marriage or adultery or rivalry, thrown into bruising dyads or triads, and then return to solitude to process their experience. Some of literature's greatest romantics are to be found in Marai, and their romantic character, it seems fair to warn the reader, is contagious.

Portraits of a Marriage, one of the most original pieces of novelistic architecture in Marai, is actually a portrait of the discontents of two marriages: those of Peter, the scion of a business family, first to the middle-class woman Ilonka and later to the servant Judit. Each of the three reflects on what happened between them, producing, it seems at times, a combined portrait not of three but of nine people. The urgency with which they speak, their love of "tiny but vital details", and their "passion for truth" - in Embers there is a fine line about the quest for "that other truth that lies buried beneath the roles, the costumes, the scenarios of life" - becomes, in its own way, a kind of narrative energy. Only the most confident of novelists could trust in his work in this way.

Here, as elsewhere, Marai delights in stacking the odds against his characters, throwing them into a spot from which it will take them all night to extricate themselves. Why does Judit, when she knows that she has Peter completely under her spell, suddenly disappear without a trace for two years, forsaking all that she could win from him? Why does she then return, and take it? Why does Peter suddenly play a trick at dinnertime one day on Ilonka with a friend, pretending that it is his pal who is Ilonka's husband and not him? Why is Ilonka suddenly filled with profound respect for Judit on discovering her crime, admiring how "she wanted it all, life entire, destiny with all its dangers"?

Marai's characters often respond to situations in the most irrational, the most surprising fashion, and then pop up afterwards to justify their behaviour in an enormously persuasive way. They are dangerous and seductive in the way the novel was once believed by moralists to be dangerous and seductive, having the mysterious power to convince or corrupt. Page after page goes by, filled out by the writer with streaks of exquisite perception and lines of throwaway brilliance ("He could listen the way others shout"; "Six is the best age for dogs and for wine"). These are speakers who gather you up in the nets of their worldview and their truths so powerfully that one believes that this is the way life really is - until they are contradicted by the next speaker.

Of a writer whom she meets on travels, Judit observes that he seemed motivated almost wholly by lust - but not ordinary sexual lust. Rather "it was the world that brought on his lust, the fabric of it; word and flesh, voices and stones, everything that exists [that] is tangible and, at the same time, impossible to grasp in its meaning and essence." This seems an accurate picture of Marai, a writer just as capable of devoting a long passage to the importance of pimento-filled olives as well as the role of joy to the meaning of "culture". Portraits of a Marriage confirms Marai's retrospective status as one of the 20th century's greatest novelists, and alongside Irene Nemirovsky, Roberto Bolano, and Alaa Al Aswany, one of the finest writers to have appeared in English translation in the last decade.

Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and literary critic based in Mumbai, and the author of Arzee the Dwarf and editor of India: A Traveler's Literary Companion