08. 17. 2013. 08:21

The dead poet is still working hard

Sándor Márai: I wanted to remain silent

This newly discovered manuscript by Márai evokes historical events that sealed the destiny of the bourgeoisie and of Hungary, as well as personal tragedies and the writer's transition from a fashionable journalist to a writer who, on account of being faithful to his principles, took on a life of endless solitude and lack of recognition.

“The dead poet is still working hard, I would say: he seems to be at the top of his powers. Life and death are nothing. Only the creative spirit and the opus are what matters. If I wasn’t paying attention, I would finish this review by saying that we can expect great works from him.” This reviewer has already made use of these sentences by Márai more than once (Márai wrote them apropos of Kosztolányi’s posthumously published works) as they come in handy for anyone who deals with manuscripts of dead authors. It is the rarest case that one finds whole coherent, finished masterpieces in the estate of a writer (although philologists tend to daydream about such exceptional cases). But there is a good chance that one finds in the loft, in boxes, or eventually receives from the heirs variations, half-finished pieces, interesting pages that are worth publishing with some explanation.

That is exactly what happened now (in this case, the source was a box), when Helikon published the third, so far unknown part of Confessions of a Bourgeois. Actually it is part of that book and it is not, as Tibor Mészáros states in his Foreword. It is not that easy to categorize this new volume by Márai, published for the 2013 Book Week. I Wanted To Remain Silent is definitely not a finished work, as the author of the Foreword explains, “it contains the first few chapters of a book that Márai originally intended to publish as Confessions of a Bourgeois III (1949–1950). The text is reconstructed from manuscripts; the editor marked the deletions. […] Föld, föld! [published in English as Memoir of Hungary] is the direct continuation (or in fact an integral part) of it.”

I understand entirely why the publisher would want to promote the book as the third and so far unknown volume of Confessions of a Bourgeois – Márai himself returned several times to this unfinished third volume, or the forth one, parts of which most probably ended up in his diaries. (Had they written on the posters that they had found the eventually omitted first chapters of Memoir of Hungary, they obviously would have achieved less effect.)

Confessions of a Bourgeois is undoubtedly one of Márai’s most significant books, with one of the most beautiful endings in Hungarian literature, narrating the news of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination that reached the writer in an idyllic summer milieu. “Princip has aimed precisely. Exactly into the middle of our lives”, as Márai wrote elsewhere. The fact that Márai was fourteen years old at the beginning of the First World War, and had just left his family and turned against their lifestyle, contributed to his perception of radical change. In fact, while he was a writer of the bourgeoisie, all his life he tried to escape from the rigid rules of his class and family.

I Wanted to Remain Silent also has such a symbolic moment that inspired Márai to contemplation: the day of the Anschluss, 12 March, 1938. Márai evokes the events of that day from the distance of a decade, already in emigration. He is writing about the presentiments that assailed him immediately, admitting at the same time that he only felt that he was experiencing a fatal turning point, he would not have been able to put it into words. He does admit not having understood what was going to happen to him and to his country in the years to come. In the evening he went to theatre; on the following day, after his usual game of tennis, he sat down to work; the servant, as usual, brought him some orange juice, yet in those moments everything had been lost already: “I was sitting there in my room, in a border region of a country where for thousand years life had been based on the principles of Christian culture, and I thought that I was a writer. I also thought that I belonged to a certain class with a certain erudition, and that this class and this erudition had a firm base.” There are quite a few such particularly strong parts in the book, when personal fate, the experience of the present moment that turns out to be historical, the destiny of the bourgeoisie and that of Hungary are shown as simultaneously mirroring one another.

But I Wanted To Remain Silent achieves more than just the analysis of the day of the Anschluss. I have never read anything similar, for instance, to the part describing Košice’s re-annexation to Hungary in 1938. As a journalist, Márai witnessed the celebrated moment in the city. However, instead of perfect happiness he felt disillusionment when returning to his hometown for which he had been longing for twenty years. His fellow locals felt in a similar way, since Hungarians coming from the “motherland” acted like colonizers towards indigenous people. The “motherlanders” (anyások) arrived, Márai writes. I have never heard this expression yet – even if it was only for this expression, I would say it is lucky that this box was found.

“Grudging and suspicious, the ‘motherlanders’ occupied the offices – with bitter humour, the locals called the public and military officers sent from the motherland ‘motherlanders’ – and they started to ‘make order’, using slogans of an impatient, ill-informed, definitely old-fashioned kind of patriotism.”

There is something else that made this discovery worthy though: in the case of Márai it is an irreparable loss that he had fallen out of time, so to say, that he could never become a contemporary author, except for the first decades of his life. I do not only mean that I was surprised to discover that Márai died when I was already at high school, and I was not informed of this fact – nor did I know anything about him, for that matter. What I also mean is that in Pál Dárday’s film, The Emigrant, which is based on Márai’s last diary, there is a scene when the old and lonely writer gets hungry, and goes down to eat in a fast food restaurant. While his apartment represents a Hungary that has disappeared by then, all around him there are palm trees, rushing cars, and teenagers chewing gum. Turn-of-the-century cult of the individual versus the victory of mass culture. Yet in a certain sense we face Márai now as a contemporary, having received a brand-new book from him.

For Márai himself is indeed present in this new book, which is not only about Hungary and her politicians (including Prime Ministers István Bethlen and László Bárdossy whom Márai knew personally). We can see the writer who experiences personal tragedies (he lost his long expected only son in 1938), and follow his transition from an accommodating, fashionable, superficial journalist to a writer who, on account of being faithful to his principles, took on endless solitude and lived in complete lack of recognition and success in the second half of his life. Ethnographer Gyula Ortutay, who, ironically enough, later became a servant of the Communist regime, wrote in his diary in 1939: “Márai would be able to serve any regime, he is a sad example of cowardly and unmanly civic humanism.” Márai also appears in Karinthy’s A Journey Round My Skull as Sándor, the virtuoso writer, the stylist, who seems to be afraid of visiting Karinthy in his illness, and whom Karinthy joshes by groaning into the phone as if he was about to die. Márai may not have been a brave man to begin with. It makes it all the more amazing to read him.

Márai Sándor: Hallgatni akartam
Budapest: Helikon, 2013

This article was originally published in Hungarian at Litera.hu.

Zsófia Szilágyi

Translated by: Ágnes Kelemen

Tags: Sándor Márai