Márai Skewers Love, ‘Marriage,’ and the Bourgeoisie

'Portraits of a Marriage' by Sándor Márai (Knopf)

Shimwoo Lee

"Portraits of a Marriage" by Sándor Márai is out now.

The 1940s were a time of war, fear, and uncertainty in Hungary. It was first a battlefield in World War II, and then a site of Soviet rule and collectivization. It is against this backdrop that Sándor Márai’s “Portraits of a Marriage,” a 1941 novel only now translated into English by George Szirtes, takes place. Márai focuses not on falling bombs and political ‘disappearances,’ but instead directs his attention to the characters’ stories of marriage, love, and personal and social change.

Though titled “Portraits of a Marriage,” Márai’s novel is by no means a static picture. Rather, it is a recounting of three lives, during which the main characters, Ilona, Peter, and Judit, reflect and comment upon their experiences and viewpoints. Narrated in three parts by the characters as they speak to acquaintances, the novel feels like a fireplace conversation between an older and a younger generation, a passing of knowledge, a sharing not just of memory but of experience. Márai’s precise and graceful prose and inventive narrative structure allow his novel to transcend the well-worn ideas he address in the novel: the disappearance of love, the death of class and culture, and disillusionment. He lets the reader stumble upon his themes as his characters discover them through self-reflection. Thus, the experience of reading “Portraits of a Marriage” feels more like discovering the wisdom of experience than reading a trite sequence of events.

“Portraits of a Marriage” is above all a chronicle of disillusionment with love. It first follows Ilona as she struggles to keep her husband Peter. As her narration progresses, she comes to terms with the fact that not everyone has one true love. This discovery opens her eyes to a world of experience that she previously was unable to explore. Yet, she is uncertain that the trade-off is worthwhile. “I was constantly attending to one man and had no time for the rest of the world,” she says. “I lost the man and gained a world. Do you think that’s a poor exchange? ... I don’t know. You might be right.” Márai’s novel derives its power from these vacillations; rather than delivering a heavy-handed lecture about how love in its idealized form does not exist, Márai allows the reader to discover this alongside Ilona and decide upon the statement’s validity for himself or herself.

Peter, too, develops a darker view of love as the narrative unfolds. At first he searches for love as an escape from loneliness, but he later realizes that this is impossible, that loneliness is inevitable, and that love is unsustainable. “It is no accident that history has regarded great lovers with the same awe and veneration as heroes, as brave pioneers who have risked all by voluntarily embarking on a hopeless but extraordinary human enterprise. Yes, true lovers run every kind of risk, literally, in every possible sense.” As Peter reflects upon his failures in love, Márai adds a twist to his cynicism: he mitigates his pessimism by the belief that the attempt to realize true love is a poetic, though futile, effort at real humanity. He views love as a Sisyphean struggle to add something incredible to life. Here, Márai departs from the platitude that true love is impossible, and presents another way of thinking, giving his novel a dimension of philosophical weight.

Peter eventually comes to terms with his alienation, realizing that everyone faces it, and, as certainly as humans will always strive for love, loneliness is a fact of life. “But one day we too grow up to be adults and learn that loneliness—genuine, fully conscious solitude—is not a punishment, not a wounded, sickly retreat from life, not isolation, but the one and only truly fitting condition for man,” he says. “And then it becomes less hard to suffer it. It is like berating pure mountain air.” Márai echoes this sense of disillusionment and loss throughout the book: in Peter’s loss of hope in overcoming isolation, in Ilona’s surrender of her belief in true love, and in the overall disappearance of social class, a broad historical change that Márai chronicles over the course of the novel.

While many authors have attempted to treat the disappearance of social class, Márai’s exploration of the theme is effective because he explores it from the viewpoint of a broad variety of  characters. Peter, the personification of the middle class, sees himself as the guardian of a dying culture. To him, the rituals of class, though seemingly meaningless, are ways of preserving his caste’s values from the encroaching proletariat. Judit, who is from a poor family, realizes that class is more than a set of customs; it is something deeper—an inheritance and a mental state, unattainable for those who do not have it and inalienable for those who do.

However, “Portraits of a Marriage” does not simply identify class as elusive and selective. It also associates it with a dying way of life. Márai effectively and powerfully cements this idea in the epilogue. The narrator, a bartender, identifies his lawnmower and his car as marks of status, declaring after obtaining these things that “I am genuinely cultured.” He is pitted against Peter, the personification of higher social class. Though Peter is literally and symbolically dying, and is now a poor laborer, he somehow retains a vestige of his middle-class upbringing. Class is dying, Márai says, and, though the younger generation has as much wealth as the older, monied class, it will never participate in the same culture. Márai departs from explicitly revealing meaning through the narrators, to implying it using the contrast between differing characters. This shift to a more subtle style is a particularly effective means of emphasizing Márai’s commentary on the death of class.

This blurring of social boundaries, along with Peter and Ilona’s discovery of the inexistence of love, all take place against the backdrop of World War II. However, worldly events are secondary to the characters’ problems—Márai  demonstrates that psychological struggles are more important than those of flesh and blood. In this context, Márai lends his arguments a sense of importance; they become powerful and universal.

“Portraits of a Marriage” chronicles three different lives as a way of exploring the broader themes of love, loneliness, disillusionment, and the death of culture. The book’s power stems from Márai’s style of narration; each character examines the themes from different viewpoints, but all comment on them with the retrospective wisdom of experience. The conversational and reflective nature of his narrative style allows the book to transcend the tedium that usually accompanies such hackneyed material. Although the novel is a straightforward portrait of three lives, Márai transforms it into a work of feeling and significance, into a true revelation of knowledge and viewpoints from a culture past.

—Staff writer Keerthi Reddy can be reached at kreddy@college.harvard.edu.

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