02. 13. 2009. 20:47

Mammoth, bard or great author

Critical responses to Márai’s Esther’s Inheritance

The recent publication of Sándor Márai’s novella, Esther’s Inheritance, provides not only a new addition to a steadily growing list of Márai works available in English, but also raises a series of provocative questions in a debate that has occupied critics since the unprecedented international success of the author’s novel, Embers, in 2000. 

Eager to answer the question of how a work written in an obscure language by a long-forgotten author could capture so many modern readers, English-speaking critics generally hail any opportunity to become more familiar with Márai’s oeuvre. In spite of this welcome, however, many critical opinions are characterized by an underlying sense of uncertainty as reviewers struggle to define Márai’s literary role and merit. In 2000 any doubts concerning his worth as a writer could be explained away for a variety of reasons including the fact that Carol Brown Janeway, the translator of Embers, quite scandalously neglected to use the Hungarian original, the undeniable disadvantages caused by the lack of other Márai works in English, or the unfamiliar nature of Hungarian literature itself. Following the translation of Casanova in Bolzano (2004), The Rebels (2007) and Esther’s Inheritance (2008) by George Szirtes, a renowned translator and poet whose knowledge of Hungarian ensures a direct relationship between translator and text, one would assume that English-speaking critics could finally define what characteristics and qualities have lead to Sándor Márai’s undeniable success with readers. Instead, an examination of the initial reception surrounding Esther’s Inheritance suggests that the situation has only become more complex.
 
As anyone following the rebirth of Márai’s popularity quickly realizes, nothing is simple when it comes to gaining an understanding of this writer, whose status as a great author is still a matter of controversy in his own homeland. While the reasons surrounding this controversy are many and varied—and frequently have little to do with literature—the astonishing array of monographs, critical studies, theatrical adaptations and articles written about this author since his “rediscovery” bears silent testimony to the fact that Hungarian literature can never again afford to ignore or forget Sándor Márai. At the same time, it must be admitted that the Márai works selected for publication in English are a frequent source of amazement to Hungarian readers, who generally hold the author’s Confessions of a Citizen, Memoir of Hungary, his Diary, or his novel, Sindbad Heads Home, in much higher esteem. Until its recent debut as a film, relatively little attention has been dedicated to Esther’s Inheritance, a work spanning a total of eighty-eight pages that generally appears in a collection of other Márai novellas.
 
This fact naturally does not mean that Esther’s Inheritance is not deserving of more attention on the part of Hungarian critics; nor does it suggest that the English-speaking world should not enjoy reading Esther’s tale of blemished love. In fact, Esther’s Inheritance offers a succinct induction into some of Márai’s best qualities, such as his precise use of language, his ironic, humorous observations concerning the unexpected drama of middle-class life and his sensitive portrayal of characters struggling with complex moral issues. In Hungarian a Márai sentence is almost immediately recognizable for its slightly aloof, pungent precision of phrase and commitment to expressing only the essential in an elegantly spare, quietly lyrical way. In comparison to Márai, the styles of other authors from the 1930’s frequently feel far more florid and dated to the modern reader; when reading Márai the appearance of a defunct, pre-war Hungarian term can almost come as a surprise at times. His choice of subject matter—morality and the middle class—was, on the other hand, arguably quite old-fashioned even in his own day and age, for this is an author who chose to dwell on the past while simultaneously keeping a keen eye on the vagaries of the present.
 
Even in his works of fiction, Márai’s observant presence always hovers at the fringe of his characters’ lives, recording their frailities and muddled attempts at immortality much the way that theatre critics sit and calmly take notes while the tension on stage spirals out of control. This characteristic is not only responsible for the sense of aloofness typical of Márai’s style, but also heightens the effect of “staginess” so obvious in Esther’s Inheritance.  As the critic Amelia Atlas observes, “in this novel… the machinations of the theatre become an occasionally aggressive leitmotif.” (Barnes and Noble Review, January 2, 2009) While it is true that the word “theatrical” is repeated over and over again in this work, Tibor Fischer’s explanation that “with a lesser writer you might expect sloppiness; but this is Márai’s style both in content and vocabulary. He chews over a problem again and again, and he loves the mantra. Hungarian has a smaller vocabulary than English, and even within those confines Márai adores repetition,” is far too sweeping, far too pat in its struggle to simplify. (Telegraph.co.uk, December 30, 2008) 
 
The recurring leitmotif of the theatre, the elaborate staging of each scene in this work, a “one-act play with over-enthusiastic stage instructions” according to Tibor Fischer, serves to underscore the main theme of Esther’s narration: where does make-believe stop and reality step in?  What is true and what is fake?  At the same time, Esther’s constant attempts to return to past events allows tension to build while simultaneously revealing new bits of tantalizing information to the reader. Amelia Atlas correctly describes Esther as “a fitful heroine” who undercuts her statements the very minute she makes them, yet the reason for Esther’s fitfulness is more apparent in Hungarian. Esther’s first sentence in the original Hungarian, for example, is both a claim and a question literally translated as, “I do not know what else God has in store for me?”  The simultaneous question and assertion (separated by only a comma) posed by this first sentence is essential to understanding Esther, who—despite her slightly ascerbic, brilliantly astute character assessments of Lajos, her brother Laci, Endre and Nunu—is far less gifted at judging her own motives and sincerity.  As a result, Esther’s narrative constantly moves between theatricality and blunt reality, never really certain of either state.
 
To lesser or greater degrees, this inability to differentiate fact from fiction plagues every character in Esther’s Inheritance, eventually engendering a situation that sometimes seems to be over-acted and over-directed. Yet without Márai’s trappings of theatricality, there would not be any point to Esther’s seemingly inexplicable decision to sign her house over to Lajos. At this point it is worthwhile to ponder the significance of the inheritance referred to in the title. What is, after all, Esther’s inheritance? Is it the diamond ring Esther instinctively knew to be a fake? Is it the house where nothing ever changes, or the garden—a garden of Eden infiltrated by Lajos’ daughter Éva (Eve), who steals all of Esther’s canned peaches before her departure—that she only managed to inherit because her friends protected her from the truth? In the end Esther trades the ring and her house for her genuine inheritance, the truth written twenty years ago in letters stolen from Esther, and the truth revealed by the consequences of her own refusal to accept the reality of her feelings for Lajos. The moral dilemma posed in Esther’s Inheritance therefore forms a neat circle; while it may seem that Márai gives the ending away in the beginning, the reader can only truly understand the paradox of Esther’s initial comment, “Life has been extraordinarily kind to me, and, just as extraordinarily, it has robbed me of everything,” after reading the novella’s ending. Similarly, the final image of the candle burning out reaffirms that Esther is again robbed at the moment she feels richest.
 
It can therefore be argued that Márai’s elaborate staging and carefully built tension culminates in a dramatic dialogue that brings no sense of cathartic relief in the end, for the circle of unknowing proves inescapable. Facing the truth, however, is what thrusts Esther out of the garden, a fate that has left her stripped of everything, but simultaneously enriched with the quiet acceptance of her approaching death and the weight of what it means to be genuinely human: “I do not know what else God has in store for me?”  
 
At the same time, the theme of truth and lies that imbues this carefully wrought text is also responsible for reducing Esther’s Inheritance to a lesser status in comparison to other Márai works, for each character’s weaknesses are so thoroughly portrayed that it is almost impossible to believe that Lajos’ letters actually contain the truth Esther seeks. Countless references are made to Lajos’ ability to describe anything and everything with perfect accuracy, so long as it is not the truth. Why would these letters be any different? As Éva describes him, “Father never remembers reality. He is a poet.” Literature’s role in supporting a false sense of reality is also evident in Esther’s claim that the point of writing down each detail of Lajos’ return must be because she wants to be honest, another sentence that pairs a question and a statement in Hungarian. Esther’s inner uncertainty over her reason for writing makes it all the harder to believe that Esther could ever be capable of recognizing the truth.  While undoubtedly possessing many interesting and worthwhile characteristics—an absorbing moral conundrum, wonderful character portrayals, an elegantly precise use of language and a subtle set of symbols—Sándor Márai undermines his characters’ credibility far too well, an act that reduces much of what is effective in Esther’s Inheritance.
 
In regard to translating Esther’s Inheritance into English, the narration’s theatrical style poses the greatest difficulty for any translator. As mentioned above, each character in this work can be judged according to the level of his or her awareness of reality, a state Márai reveals in the language used by his characters. The way Esther wavers between theatricality and solid reality is signalled by the questions in her statements and the blunt phrases that frequently end her descriptions, such as in the following example: “After Vilma died, overcome by a fit of sentimentality and once again enthralled by the pathos of it all, Lajos foisted it [the ring] off on me.”  Esther’s bitter description—reám tukmálta, or “foisted it off on me”—Szirtes renders as, “When Vilma died Lajos suddenly waxed sentimental and in a moment of high pathos presented it to me,” a much weaker interpretation of the original. Esther’s bluntness could have been used to counteract the more theatrical parts of her narrative, which generally entail inverted sentence structures or phrases that lend an air of antiquity to the English version of Esther’s Inheritance. At the same time, Nunu’s dry, almost terse comments reflect a better grasp of reality and should have been spared the drama of, “I will lock away the silver,” when something like “Hide the silver,” would have been closer to the spirit of the original.
 
It is without doubt extremely difficult to maintain the kind of syntactic relationships—pairing claims with questions, doubts with certainties—that Márai effortlessly utilizes in Esther’s narration, for what sounds perfectly natural in Hungarian frequently becomes outlandish in English. The following may be an appropriate, if slightly radical, solution for the opening sentence: “What more store for me? I do not know.” A second possibility could be to use a hyphen: “I do not know—what more could God have in store for me?” In the first instance the syntactic tension caused by placing a statement and a question in one sentence disappears, but the essence of Esther’s dilemma is perhaps made a bit clearer. The second example places the correct emphasis on Esther’s admission of ignorance. Szirtes, on the other hand, turns the entire sentence into a single statement that is not only too definite, but far too resigned: “I don’t know what else God has in store for me.” 
 
These inconsistencies in Szirtes’ rendition of Esther are also duplicated in small details, such as a stone bench described as a “concrete bench,”placed in the garden of a house that resists all change! The cufflinks Lajos commissioned for Vilma’s funeral are reduced to “black buttons” and the canned peaches are transformed into peach jam while Nunu and Esther sit in the garden facing lime trees that would be better off as lindens. (While linden trees are frequently referred to by the more archaic term “lime” in Great Britain, use of the synonym “linden” would have erased any possible confusion with the tropical lime tree, a jarring association when picturing a Hungarian garden.)  On the other hand, Szirtes’ portrayal of Lajos’ “voice” sounds exactly like that of a seedy actor flaunting the moth-eaten remnants of a once-magnificent costume, just as much of the unevenness in Esther’s narration fortunately smoothes out in time for her final dialogue with Lajos.
 
In his fascinating analysis entitled “A Happening in World Literature?“, (Posthumous Renaissance: Studies on Sándor Márai’s Afterlife in Germany, pp. 7-23) the literary scholar István Fried makes the following observation in reference to the critical responses surrounding the revival of Márai’s works in German: “It is risky to draw any broad conclusions based on critical opinions that are, by their very nature, mixed.”  At the same time, Fried’s detailed study of the circumstances responsible for this mixed critical response reveals many familiarities, such as the unfortunate tendency on the part of critics to educate readers about Márai with journalistic book reviews instead of conducting detailed analyses firmly based in the historical, cultural and linguistic facts surrounding Márai’s oeuvre. In order to ameliorate this situation, István Fried states that translations of monographs and other academic responses must follow the publication of additional Márai works, for the continuation of such mixed responses may eventually hinder Márai’s renaissance, rather than aiding it. The inclusion of an introduction containing a short literary analysis would have certainly allowed critics to do a more accurate job in understanding Esther’s Inheritance. Most importantly, a brief note from the translator would have also served to remind critic and reader alike that the words they are reading are not Sándor Márai’s, but really George Szirtes’. 
 
Equally dangerous to Sándor Márai’s reputation is the critical insistence on representing Márai as a “bard of the middle class” (to quote Tibor Fischer’s description) whose works exist frozen in time, yet can still be depended upon for their atmospheric portrayal of “long-vanished” worlds. Richard Eder’s words are an extreme example of the stereotypes feeding Márai’s critical reception in English-speaking countries: “Much like a bit of DNA from a frozen mammoth somehow bringing that huge, stomping beast back to life, the novels of the Hungarian Sándor Márai—many decades old, dealing with long-vanished worlds and only now published here—have returned from literary extinction with unfaded fierceness and dazzle.” (Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2009) The debate therefore continues. Yet, whether reincarnated as a woolly mammoth, designated as a bard, hailed as a great author or reduced to mediocracy, the fact remains that Sándor Márai continues to—surprise.
                          
Sándor Márai: Esther’s Inheritance
Translated by George Szirtes
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008
 

Maya J. LoBello

Tags: Sándor Márai