by Sándor Márai
"Suddenly I felt a great calm descend on me: I knew Lajos had come because he had no choice, and that we were welcoming him because we had no choice, and the whole thing was as terrifying, as unpleasant, and as unavoidable for him as it was for us."(p 53)
When a story is told in the first person you must ask yourself to what extent she is a reliable narrator. In Esther's case I found her invoking God (fate) in the first line of the book in which she would narrate events about a day from three years before. So I expected a story that would depend on her view, reliable or not, of what her life had been fated to be; in that I was not disappointed. Marai's simple, lucid beautiful prose is perfect for this story of betrayal, the memory of difficult times, and the twists of fate that lead Esther and her one-time lover, perhaps still so, to the confrontation that provides the climax to her story. Long ago the lover, Lajos, professed his love to Esther but then married her sister, Vilma, who has since died. At the beginning of the tale, we are told he is an inveterate liar: “He lied the way the wind howls, with a certain natural energy, in high spirits.” In the past, Lajos swindled Esther and her family and friends out of money and possessions. That he has not changed his ways is evident from his telegram, which is “like an opera libretto, just as theatrical, as dangerously childish and false, as everything he had said and written.” Esther is moved by "an irresistible voice" within her to which she must be true - that is her fate. Thus the inevitable confrontation with Lajos who had left her to her fate to grow old alone with her elderly cousin Nunu, is both compelling and revealing. It is this Lajos who, according to Esther "demanded that one should live dangerously"(p 45). The story, imbued with an ethereal blend of family and history by Marai, depicts the background of Lajos' entry into the family through his friendship with Esther's brother Laci, a friendship that grew until it took on "an unsettling air of intimacy"(p32) and only ended with the death of Vilma. The narrative is related based on events that are related slowly through memory and conversations that help Esther struggle with her coming to be what she is, where she is and why she was so fated. It is a story that is told in darkness lit by candles and ends with the sleep of Esther, but not with death.
Sandor Marai, whose novel Embers was published in English in 2001, was a Hungarian emigre who died in California in 1989. With the translation of Esther's Inheritance we have another jewel of a novel from this formerly unheralded writer of twentieth century Europe.
Esther's Inheritance: a novel by Sandor Marai. George Szirtes, trans. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008 (1939)
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