"No, the secret is that there's no reward and we have to endure our characters and our natures as best we can, because no amount of experience or insight is going to rectify our deficiencies, our self-regard, or our cupidity. We have to learn that our desires do not find any real echo in the world. We have to accept that the people we love do not love us, or not in the way we hope. We have to accept betrayal and disloyalty, and, hardest of all, that someone is finer than we are in character or intelligence."
— Sándor Márai (Embers)
One of my favorite novelists in recent years is the Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai who was born on this day in 1900. Márai’s books have been reissued and become bestsellers recently, after having been nearly forgotten for decades. Fiercely anti-Nazi and anti-Communist, Márai fled Hungary in 1948 and refused to allow his work to be published there under any Communist regime. He eventually settled in San Diego, continued to write, and published forty-six books before his suicide in 1989. Perhaps because of Christopher Hampton’s 2006 play adaptation produced by Portobello Productions and starring Jeremy Irons, the best known of Márai’s novels to reappear is Embers. The story is a smoldering fireside chat in which two former friends recall the Vienna of Emperor Franz Joseph, an aristocratic-military world of high boots and brightly-lit ballrooms and deeper desires held at bay. Only brief excerpts from Márai’s actual memoirs have been translated to English as yet (by Tim Wilkinson in the Hungarian Quarterly) but they promise another bestseller. The journal entries from his last years are a riveting historical and personal document, ranging from his dying wife’s daybreak declaration of love to his target practice with his suicide revolver to his memories of his life-journey. The following is taken from his March 18, 1984 entry, Márai three weeks away from his eighty-fifth birthday:
A dinner in the Mikó utca apartment, 40 years ago today. Everything was, at that point, still in its place, two maids, the big apartment. The table setting as in the good old days: silver ware, china, everything just as it should be. Of the family members around the table, sharing in that supper on my name-day, my mother, Aunt Julie, brother-in-law Gyula, sister-in-law Tessie, and Alice Madách have all passed away. My brothers are still alive, so am I, and L. too, though only just. That night German Nazi troops occupied Budapest. Everything was dislocated- life, work, Hungary, the old order and disorder. A total break.
I was 44 and just recovering from a severe illness. Two weeks later came the move out to Leányfalu, into exile, with the dog and a maid. The bombardment of Budapest began, with our own house being hit by 36 shells and bombs on the last day of the siege; everything was destroyed. I left half my life there. Then came the second round, the roaming across continents. It was 40 years ago today that the self I was until then perished, and that other self who I am today took shape- and now even that is in the process of disintegration. (The Hungarian Quarterly)