February 2009

Paul Morton

fiction

Esther's Inheritance by Sándor Márai, translated by George Szirtes

In the past decade Sándor Márai has enjoyed a revival in the English-speaking world that has still eluded most of his predecessors and contemporaries in Hungary. Embers (1942, Tr. 2001) chronicled the disintegration of a friendship at the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Conversations in Bolzano (alternatively published as Casanova in Bolzano, 1940, tr. 2004) tells a series of Borgesian jokes about a decidedly unattractive Casanova. Like a Law and Order episode, Márai has a tendency to set up marvelous conceits which he then a little too programmatically deconstructs. So far, The Rebels (1930, Tr. 2007), in which a strange jester captivates a group of teenagers in a depressed town during the final months of World War I, is the least didactic and most spontaneous, and as such, my favorite of his books to make it stateside in a major English translation. (The Budapest-based publishing house Corvina has published English editions of his nonfiction which has yet to reach the US. His complete works fill up a few bookshelves.)

First published in 1939, Esther’s Inheritance is the fourth of his novels to receive such a major translation and the third to be translated directly from Hungarian by the poet George Szirtes. He renders Márai’s enigmatic prose into something close to the clean subdued tones of the pre-war English upper middle-class. Its first two pages seem to establish it as a Dostoevskyan novella about Christian doubt. In a spare comical manner, the narrator speaks of a voice that demands that she tell her story, of a “peculiar grace that, as my faith teaches is sometimes granted the undeserving and the willful.” She speaks of the “duties” that she has fulfilled before her death, and then, like a good Christian, apologizes for using such a “haughty word that I shall have to answer for sometime in front of someone.” She speaks in paradoxes. “Life has been extraordinarily kind to me, and, just as extraordinarily, it has robbed me of everything.” Those two pages are misleading. By the end of the novel, Christianity is almost beside the point.

Esther lives a simple spinsterish life on an estate with her old maid Nunu. One day she receives a telegram informing her that Lajos, the great would-be lover from her past is coming to visit. Lajos is a deadly charming sociopath “who lied the way the wind howls, with a certain natural energy, in high spirits.” In his time, he wrote her beautiful letters, but he ended up marrying Esther’s sister instead. He has stolen much from Esther’s family while also destroying its emotional core. And we know that he has come to steal more.

Esther is frighteningly self-aware of her place in the tale. She regards herself, the lingering affection she still feels for Lajos and her faith at a studied remove. Late in the book, she is called a “Moral Genius,” a title she fails to disown. She possesses an essence of goodness and decency opposed to Lajos whom she calls a “genius of lies.” And it is this self-awareness, a knowledge that she is performing the role of the good woman in a decrepit moral universe, rather than just being that good woman, that makes her, unlike Sofia Marmeladova, unlovable. 

There is something unsettling about Esther’s stoical voice which lacks, by her own admission, “biblical fury or passion.” She regards the young generation around her as “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.” Her tragedy is not only that she exists as a faithful Christian in a post-Christian universe, it is that she exists as a 19th-century character from a society novel in a 20th century novel that is one step away from post-modernism.

Esther’s Inheritance is a frustrating little book. Márai purposefully allows terrible revelations to land without shock. And as Esther and Lajos regard themselves at a remove, inverting the archetypes of the good woman and the scoundrel, we are forced to regard them at one as well.

As Márai wrote Esther’s Inheritance, Hungary was growing increasingly nationalist and would soon find itself in the middle of World War II as an ally of Germany. Esther’s Inheritance like Embers is a smirking eulogy for the codes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had established the rules that would eventually lead to so many of Hungary’s future tragedies. Today, however, it is the gentle period of empire that fascinates so many about Budapest. Book-minded tourists to the Hungarian capital are more likely to carry with them John Lukacs’s wonderful Budapest 1900 than any of the recent accounts of Hungary’s experience in the Holocaust or the 1956 Revolution. The restrained ambience and intellectual life of pre-World War I Hungary excites us in a way that it did not and could not have excited Márai.

And that may be the source of the great flaw of the book. It explains, honestly and fairly, all the great inherent evils in Esther’s society. But it forgets that “the contract” Esther and her parents established created a world so many still find alluring, whatever its false promises.

Esther's Inheritance by Sándor Márai, translated by George Szirtes
Knopf
ISBN: 1400045002
160 Pages