07. 02. 2010. 22:03

The freedom of silence

Sándor Márai: The Unabridged Diary, 1952-53

After three and a half years spent as an expatriate in Italy, Márai decided to relocate to New York along with his wife and their adopted son. The decision was extremely painful and one which, in all probability, determined the remaining 37 years of his life.

Whatever one might think about Sándor Márai’s achievement as a writer, probably no one would deny that he was the most courageous Hungarian author in the 20th century. Or should this adjective jar on anyone’s ear, we might at least say that he took the most risk. Sacrificing his entire status as a successful writer in his own country, in 1948 he decided to emigrate from a country which was increasingly overcome by bolshevism. It had become a place where, he claimed, after the freedom of speech even the freedom of silence was lost. Márai was a practiced migrant – aged 19 he had already gone to Germany, moved on to Paris and returned to Budapest only after 8 years. This, however, was part of a consciously organised educational period, a succession of adventures undertaken voluntarily and willingly, indeed, with great joy. This extraordinary experience, which nothing else could have granted, helped the slow unfolding of his career as a prose writer. He was convinced that he could only thrive in Hungary, inside, or not far from, his native linguistic milieu.
The background to his 1948 decision was completely different. Márai had been the most successful writer of the previous period, making plenty of money, treated as a star and leading a perfectly furbished and flawlessly functioning bourgeois lifestyle. By 1945 nothing was left of this. Gone, too, was the illusion which many of the ‘bourgeois writers’ had clung to that, tolerated by the communist regime, they might be able to salvage certain vestiges of a bygone value system at least for a period of time. More precisely: Márai refused to buy into this illusion, having known from the start that it was mere food for self-deception. He was also convinced that compromises would sooner or later destroy an author’s credit. (In this he was wrong – indeed, what we saw was that authors and readers alike underwent the years of socialism as slaves to compromise and thus easily found the way to each other.) Thus in 1948 he had to start his career as an author almost all over again. This meant taking a huge risk, but in the event, as his diaries testify, Márai was excessively happy in the new home he had chosen for himself – at Posillipo, near Naples. He loved the simple Italian life, the cuisine, the climate, the sea and the Southern sky the like of which one cannot find anywhere. He felt he had come home, as it were. Thus, bidding goodbye was tremendously painful.
The farewell to Naples and Posillipo was more painful than any farewell I had ever taken of anything or anybody in my life. I had loved everything here and I knew that in their own way they, the Southern Italians, had also accepted me. Many of them cried, in the little town, in my house, or kept holding me by the hand – the wine-man, the coal-merchant, the fish-monger. In the last days I came to understand why it was so hard to go away from here. The landscape, the people, Italy - everything would stay where it is, this is true.  But these three and a half years had been for me a whole cycle of experience which I now violently ripped out of place. 
However, while still immersed in his dolcevita, after a while he had come to realise that if he wanted to continue his career as a writer he would have to budge. For in this respect the Italian years had proved rather unproductive and he knew that if he wanted to make anything more of himself as a writer he would have to settle in a larger linguistic zone and generally a more spacious world. And although he spoke German with native competence (indeed, in his youth there was a chance he might become a German writer), former Nazi Germany (or Austria) appeared no less repellent to him than bolshevism and thus offered no option as a place to live. This is why he chose the United States.
So, part we must – but why exactly? The day before we left was my 52nd birthday. Perhaps I have a few years left in which to work. In our position, without home and country, hovering between heaven and earth, it would seem wrong to spend this time in the morphine-sweet state of eternal holiday in Posillipo.
Which seemed a logical enough line of thought. But the newly published diary seems to suggest that in fact he himself did not know what he was undertaking and why. At first, as we quoted, he explained it by referring to his work. Next (and at the same time) he convinced himself that he was moving to the USA to secure a better future for his wife Lola and, most of all, for their adopted son. In the States the child would have a happier and safer future than in impoverished Italy. (Anyone acquainted with later developments will bitterly add that life played a cruel trick on Márai, since the son, János Babócsay died of a sudden heart attack at the age 46 in 1987, two years before the death of the author himself.)
For all that, Márai never planned that emigration to the USA would be his last move. The journal states time after time that they would only stay in New York for two years, get János into a good school, set him up in life and then both return to Naples, thereafter to ‘commute’ between New York and Italy. (This all came to nothing. It was not until 1967 that they finally went to Salerno, Italy, only to move on to California – and this ultimately closed the circle.) How could he have known? Although he soon grew fond of New York and found well-paid work at the radio, life in America was detestable, almost unbearable to him. Any random diary entry will illustrate this. In 1953 he wrote,
It is very hard, almost impossible to say what it is I cannot stand here in America. I live amongst comfortable circumstances, for how long one cannot tell, but this could not be more secure or long term anywhere else, either. (…) I have been living here for ten months and I am not healthy: my gall and my stomach are rebelling. I feel my days are empty, I cannot work. I, who was able to work under any circumstances, even during the siege! What is it I cannot stand about America? There is no answer but this: it is soulless! These people have not come to life yet. They have no soul. They are mechanised proles, fat, sleepy, lazy golems, these Americans.  
Yes, Márai was an incorrigible European, and Hungarian at that. Although he would have been loath to admit the latter and keeps on declaring time after time that there are two fatal elements in New York, the climate and the Hungarians. (Characteristically, there was only one Hungarian from New York he was interested in – Béla Bartók, who had been dead for seven years.) He missed the language and his Hungarian readership, no matter how unappealing – he hated communists as much as he hated the so-called ‘Hungarian Christian middle class’ which, despite his wish and his own taste, held him perhaps as its favourite writer. Márai’s emigration remained proud and fatally solitary – this is what the newly published entries substantiate. And although he later proved able to work, and wrote several novels in exile, only one, Föld! föld! (published in English as Memoir of Hungary – see our review) represents the standard he had reached before and the world of experiences which none other could represent. And, naturally, he produced an entire line of the Diaries, the latest of which is fascinating for its documentary value but also because of the amazing and heart-rending honesty with which it represents the heroic struggle of a serious man and writer.
Zoltán András Bán
Márai Sándor: A teljes napló, 1952-53
Budapest: Helikon, 2009

Tags: Sándor Márai: The Unabridged Diary, 1952-53