03. 25. 2011. 08:02

Class and love

Sándor Márai: Portraits of a Marriage

More than just three "Portraits of a Marriage", as promised by the title, Márai's novel, now translated into English, paints three portraits of a society, a class, and an era in Hungary—from the interwar years to the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Communist era.

Portraits of a Marriage is the English title given by the translator, George Szirtes, to a book that is in fact two books: Az igazi [The Real One] was published in Hungary in 1941, whereas Judit… és az utóhang [Judit… and the afterword] was written in emigration and published in 1980.

More than three portraits of a marriage, this novel paints three portraits of a society, a class, and an era in Hungary—from the interwar years to the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Communist era.

The story, unfolding from three monologues set in Budapest, Rome and New York, is that of a love triangle. The wife, Ilonka, comes from an up-and-coming middle-class family, and marries Peter, a bourgeois industrialist. Their marriage is impeccable, except for the fact that they can never get close to one another. After their two-year-old child dies, Peter finally admits to Ilonka that something is wrong, and although he does not say what it is, she eventually finds out that the reality, as banal as it is mystical, is that there is someone else, “the real one”, who turns out to be Peter’s family's servant, Judit, a peasant girl whom Peter had asked to marry in his youth. Judit had refused then, out of calculation or out of spite, but the passionate feelings between the two never died. Finally Peter divorces Ilonka and marries Judit, but that marriage also ends in divorce. There is a fourth character in the novel, not involved in the triangle, but always present as a witness to Peter’s life and to his unhappy relationships, as well as a catalyst of certain events: Lazar, the writer, Márai’s alter ego, who had renounced from social games as well as from carnal love. The war breaks out, and in a certain sense the cataclysm has the effect of a moment of truth on the characters. After the siege of Budapest and the seizure of power by the Communists the devastated country has nothing to offer to them, and they leave Hungary to live in emigration ever after, just like Márai himself had.

We piece together these facts bit by bit as we read the monologues of Ilonka, Peter, Judit and Judit’s lover in Rome. The first two voices, being closer to Márai’s own world, sound more authentic. Judit’s account makes fascinating reading, yet she, even if we consider her exceptional talent for absorbing ideas and behaviour, and her extensive experience in mimicry, sometimes says things that are beyond her, ideas that the writer desperately wants to bring home to us. The afterword, written in San Diego in 1979, is a sketchy account told by a Hungarian drummer of low-class origin and with a shady past

Thus we have four narratives, told by four people who are prisoners of their class and their upbringing. As their story unfolds, it becomes clear that in Márai’s view neither love (Ilonka), nor passion and discipline (Peter), nor even calculation (Judit) make it possible for people to escape from their social class. No wonder Márai's books could not be published in Communist Hungary, where this view would have been considered the most retrograde possible. Both marriages fail because of class: Ilonka and Peter cannot live together because he is a "real", old-time bourgeois, a specimen of a species that was becoming extinct in the decades in which the novel takes place. For Peter, dress code, table manners as well as erudition are all taken for granted. The family observes these rules and believes in this education as if they were constantly performing a ritual, and Peter, a quintessential figure of this class, is clearly aware that they are a dying species. Ilonka, on the other hand, observes these rules and talks about art and literature as if she was reciting a lesson.

Judit, the peasant girl, holds the promise of salvation from this sterility. But even though she appropriates all the knowledge that a rich bourgeois wife must have, her class, which gave her the energy and the savageness that Peter admired in the first place, takes its revenge on her: the instinct of the poor peasant child who used to live in a ditch commands her to betray her husband by stealing money from him and by watching him as an outsider while making love to him.

Márai’s view of history is as pessimistic as his view of human relations. Whatever happens, the constellations might change, yet deep down everything remains the same. Not even the horrors of war—a potential purification—could change the people; let alone regime changes. How could a regime change alter anything, Márai asks, if people remain the same as before?

A basic theme of the novel is stealing and pillaging. The new constantly robs the old: the up-and-coming classes rob the old classes, and everybody robs the country. In Judit’s monologue there is an account of how the country was pillaged in the years of the war and in its aftermath: first by the Nazis, then by the Russians, and eventually by the Communists. Yet no horrors alter the basics of life: Judit tells about the absurdity of bargaining for nail polish remover a mere two weeks after the 102-day-long siege of Budapest (one of the most savage battles of World War II, comparable only to the sieges of Leningrad, Stalingrad and Warsaw) had ended.

Preserving values amidst all this pillaging—that is what the role of Peter’s class is, according to Márai. For him, a bourgeois is not someone who wants to live in comfort, but someone who preserves and creates; the lay equivalent of a monk. There is a constant sense of anxiety in this way of life, a constant fear that this whole order might collapse at any moment. Judit says about an English family she used to work for that she never knew whether they were a sophisticated Swiss watch or a bomb ready to explode at any moment. (And the paraphernalia as well as the general sense of purpose of the bourgeoisie, taken for granted in Western Europe, have always been invested with greater significance in an Eastern European context where people always have the feeling of being on the boundary, and therefore doubly threatened.) As Peter says, the whole enterprise is like an expedition which sets out to conquer flourishing lands, when suddenly the sea freezes around them, and there is no sense of purpose any more; only solitude remains. Behind the narratives and behind all that one is sometimes inclined to call the pontifications of the author, this heart-rending solitude is what prevails in this novel.

Sándor Márai: Portraits of a Marriage
Translated by George Szirtes
New York: Knopf, 2011

Ágnes Orzóy

Tags: Sándor Márai