Monday, 4 July 2016

Book of the Month: Esther's Inheritance (Sandor Marai)

When Sandor Marai put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, he had every reason to believe that his life was over. He was 89, and, after the death of his wife of more than five decades, lonely. In a journal he kept at the time Marai wrote:

 ‘I totter along the street like Blondel . . . Not even on sand any longer, but on a rope, hands stretched around in front, feeling the empty air . . .’

For more than 40 years Marai had lived a life of obscurity in San Diego, after he was driven out of Hungary in 1948 for his anti-Communist views. The forces that drove him into exile were still in power in Hungary at the time of Marai’s death. The Berlin Wall was still standing, and the memories of his glory days, as an author of repute, must have become mist-filled, even in his own mind.

Born in 1900 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Sandor Marai (real name: Sandor Karoly Henrik Grosschmied de Mara) rose to great fame in Hungary in the 1930s. He was a prolific author of 46 novels. Vehemently anti-Fascist (his wife was Jewish) and ant-Communist, Marai’s literary output reached its peak in the 1940s, as though he had a premonition that his life as a writer was about to be cut short. By the time he died, in 1989, all of his novels were not only out of print their manuscripts were also thought to have been lost. There was no trace left that there lived once an author who wrote novels of great poignancy and subtlety.

Zoom forward ten years: Roberto Callasso, the legendary Italian publisher, on a trip to Paris, browsed through a publisher’s catalogue which gave a list of ‘neglected classics’. Callasso came across the name Sandor Marai, of whom he had never heard. Curious to find out more, Callasso asked for the novelist’s works. He began reading the French translation and realized that what he had in front of him was a lost masterpiece. The novel was Embers, which was later translated and published to great acclaim across the globe. Since the discovery of Embers, three more Marai novels appeared in English of which Esther’s Inheritance is one.

The eponymous heroine of Esther’s Inheritance is a spinster in her mid-forties, who has been leading a quiet, if somewhat impecunious, existence after the family fortunes took nose-dive more than twenty years earlier. The man partly responsible for the debacle was also the man she had hopelessly fallen in love with. That man, Lajos, a friend of her brother, Laci, broke her heart by leaving her for her elder sister, Wilma. Lajos disappeared after Wilma’s death, taking with him their two children, Eva and Gustav. And now, twenty years later, Esther receives a telegram from Lajos that he would be visiting her. The telegraph triggers a maelstrom of emotions in Esther’s mind, and she is compelled to revisit those portentous times when Lajos promised so much only to betray her. Esther’s friends, and her faithful housekeeper, Nunu, who have stood by her in her difficult days, are concerned that Lajos is visiting only because he has a hidden agenda.  Then Lajos arrives with his children, Esther’s niece and nephew, whom she has not seen for over two decades. Lajos does have a motive behind the visit, and the lives of the two ex-lovers are about to collide once more, fatefully, and Esther would once again allow herself to be robbed of her inheritance by her feckless ex-lover.

Esther’s Inheritance, narrated in the first person by Esther, builds up slowly and inexorably towards the climactic encounter between her and Lajos. Lajos is a man who is not malicious by nature, but he is a fantasist, a larger than life character. He is a man given to grandiloquent ideas, which change more often than the seasons in the year, and which—every one of it—leave him in dire financial straits. Esther knows this. At the very beginning of her story, she describes him thus:

‘He never wrote about his feeling . . . On top of this he would lay out the great idea that was currently demanding his attention, and all in such meticulously authentic terms that everything seemed larger than life. It was just that—and even this tin-eared reader [Esther] could sense it—none of it was true, or rather it was true, but not as Lajos wrote it.’

Lajos does not set out deliberately to hurt people; he does not scheme to cheat them in the manner of a swindler. He appears to be even genuinely remorseful at the wreckage he has left behind. That does not, however, stop him from hatching up his next big idea. He is a man who lives in the present and will do whatever he can to extricate himself from the latest mess he has landed in. And if that requires of him to tell lies and emotionally blackmail middle age spinsters whom he has betrayed in the past, it is all grist for the mill. He has some insight into his character. When he meets Esther after twenty years and presents her with his preposterous demand, he says:

‘I have always been a weak man. I would like to have achieved something in the world, and I believe I was not altogether without talent. But talent and ambition are not enough . . . To be properly creative one needs something else . . . some special strength or discipline or the mixture of the two; the stuff I think they call character . . . And that quality, that talent is something that is lacking in me.’

Esther is an intriguing character. She is a woman of high moral fibre and has in abundance that which Lajos admits to be lacking in him: character. By the time Lajos comes to see Esther scales have fallen of Esther’s eyes. Twenty years of leisurely spinsterhood has allowed her to go over again and again in her mind her relationship not only with Lajos, but also her complex relationship with her dead sister Wilma, the woman for whom Lajos left her. Yet she is also credulous in the way only the virtuous can be; and, when Lajos presents her with letters he had allegedly written days before he married her sister all those years ago and which she has not read until then, she walks into the trap Lajos has set for her.

Esther’s Inheritance is a meticulously crafted novel. Beautifully translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, it is intense, atmospheric, and harrowing. As Marai takes the reader, sentence by perfectly crafted sentence, towards the encounter between Lajos and Esther—the pivotal point of the novel—your teeth are set on edge. There is a sense of inevitability, a sense of predetermination, to the outcome of the encounter, of which you become gradually aware, and, with a sense of fatality, you predict it even before Lajos enters Esther’s room for the final, dramatic, tension-filled showdown. Yet it does not leave you feeling disappointed—because you have correctly guessed the end—; neither does it fill you with pity or irritation towards Esther—there is a solid moral grounding to her decision which you cannot but admire; she may be credulous, but she is not weak-willed, and does not require anyone’s pity. Lajos does not deserve disapprobation either—because he is not a bad person; he is a morally weak man who cannot help doing bad things.
First published in 1939, four years before Embers, Esther’s Inheritance is a multilayered novel that can be enjoyed at several levels. It vividly evocates a bygone era and the ethos that disappeared with it; however, it is not just a trip down the memory lane; with subtlety and skill of a born novelist, Marai gets his point across: the ephemeral boundaries between the good and the bad, and the holding power of unrequited love. Esther’s Inheritance is an irresistible work that clutches to your heart.