News – 4th November, 2012

The internal and unremitting exile of Sándor Márai

News–4th November, 2012


The internal and unremitting exile of Sándor Márai

Márai’s diary, begun in Budapest well before the gathering storm of Fascist Arrow-Cross occupation and the subsequent deadly seige, can certainly be read as the narrative of an internal emigration. - Ottilie Mulzet's essay on Márai and emigration.

Exile is a fundamentally discontinuous state of being.

Edward Said



To live in exile is to carry within oneself forever the remnants of a lost world. Exile: whether forced or chosen (“emigration”). A lost world: because even with the possibility of return over the years our former surroundings have changed irrevocably: the landscape altered, people speak differently, and so we discover we have become living relics of an era and a world that have long since passed. Those who engage in the activity of writing are presented with a peculiar dilemma: to render the manifestations of these ‘haunting fragments of the past’ public (as in the case of, for example, Czesław Miłosz), like a shadow play projected onto a screen; whether the ghosts are consciously evoked (Nabokov) or seem to turn up uninvited (Conrad). One either forces a second, perhaps even more wrenching, of one’s own self into a more profound emigration than that of the mere outer circumstances: into a new language, new idioms and a new vocabulary (Julie Kristeva speaks of this as the matricide of one’s mother tongue), or carries the banner of the old, perhaps for an entire lifetime, with touching or perhaps even frightening fidelity (Witold Gombrowicz). Sándor Márai (1900-1989), born in Kassa, in what was then part of Hungary, belonged to this latter category, who, like Gombrowicz, assiduously avoided his native land after the cataclysms of the Second World War and the subsequent assumption of Communist rule, yet all the while remaining perfectly faithful to his mother tongue.

To be in exile it is necessary to have come from somewhere, it is necessary to have lost something forever. ‘Le bonheur le plus pur, celle qu’on perdu’ (The most pure happiness is that which one has lost’), says Gaston Bachelard. Márai, as critic Béla Pomogáts points out, was one of those many central and eastern European literary émigrés of the early twentieth century whose fate it was to come from a place, a distinct place, a time, a city, the main characteristic of which was constant and disruptive change.

The lifestyle, habits and accoutrements of the typical bourgeois citizen of Kassa (today Košice in Slovakia) were lovingly chronicled by Márai well before the city's actual disappearance in Confessions of a Bourgeois, in which the fragments of a soon-to-be-lost world are assembled with as much attention to detail as a meticulously arranged Biedermeier interior. Márai’s was not a consciousness suddenly struck by the shock of the traumatic and unexpected loss of his childhood home. He has a truly uncanny sense (especially evident in his feuilletons written for the German and Hungarian press in the 1920s and 1930s) of political events: these writings are full of presentiments of what is to come. He wrote this, for example, for a Kassa newspaper in 1922:

In the melting snow sits a German man on the corner of a street clogged with traffic; he is a beggar, and he is singing. Beggars in large cities sing more furiously than in the provinces: louder, more professionally, most likely due to the competition of the din of the city and – as I nearly wrote – that of the living. The more astute, and those who have obtained a license to do so, place a barrel-organ in front of themselves on the ground and play older and newer tunes for the passers-by in the street. In Berlin, at the corner of Mauerstrasse and Leipzigerstrasse, sits a legless beggar who is always cranking out the latest shimmy. Both of his legs are missing. As soon as a new dance tune becomes popular, the legless beggar is playing it on the street. This particular unfortunate in the melting snow was blind, but for the sake of even greater effect he was also missing half an arm. His soldier’s cap lay beside him in the snow. The snow was melting quickly in the thaw, and no amount of theorizing could help the fact that to be sitting in the slush could not be much in the way of amusement or an evening’s respite to a one-armed beggar. Not a soul was in sight, and the man with one arm howled at the top of his lungs. This is what he sang this winter in Berlin on the first evening of melting snow:

Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles, über alles in der Welt!

If Georg Grosz had sketched this individual with this song coming out of his mouth, everyone would have nodded in recognition. I had to pause, there in the melting snow. One was aware of the fact of another human being, because with his frightful hoarse voice he summoned us to fervour, he bellowed into the street that for him Germany is über alles. He learnt this song as a schoolboy, then later in 1914 he sang it when he was taken off to the front, where they would pierce out his eye and cut off his arm for the sake of Germany. And how many other gouged-out eyes and chopped-off arms are screaming in this hour on muddy and snowy street-corners that Germany is über alles! He, the poor wretch, with the cunning of beggars, had worked out that this song would find a favourable reception with many, it would move people and thus they would give…

…but no matter how much you give, you still hear him late at midnight, before falling asleep.

In parallel to his exquisite sense of the actual, the seemingly ephemeral (which always contains the most searing of truths), was his project of assembling his literary inventory on paper, almost as if to protect and guard that which could never be protected, as if in the creation of this micro-universe formed of words, he were saving it from the ravages of fate; then and only then did he make his farewell. His last actual farewell to the city of his birth came in 1941, four days after the Nazi occupation of Paris: he was able to fly back to Kassa for one last visit. The only book he took with him on that journey (as the Slovak critic Dušan Šimko has noted) was a copy of Pascal’s Pensées. It is worth noting here the pregnant symbolism of Pascal (perhaps the greatest French thinker of the Classical Age most preoccupied with the question of despair and emptiness) as well as the dialectic in Márai’s writing—perhaps most prominent in his diaries—of emptiness and fullness: the emptiness of exile, the incessant volition to objective ‘distance’, and the creation of a space of solitude that is protective, nurturing, and yet containing within itself its own perilous abyss.

In his volume of 1941, Kassai őrjárat [Kassa Sentinel], Márai already seems to be examining the town of his birth from a great distance. (As Šimko has pointed out, it is surely no accident his trip there was made by plane, and that due to weather conditions, the pilot had to circle above Kassa before landing: Márai was physically present in that infinite void so terrifying to Pascal). If Márai’s vision in the Confessions is truly microscopic—where seemingly no feature of the bourgeois milieu of Kassa was undeserving of mention—in his chronicle of his last trip to Kassa he seems to be truly gazing at his own past and shared cultural heritage through a telescope, almost as if from another planet. Clearly he is concerned with discovering the seeds of the present conflict (recollecting upon his childhood and youth, he constantly states that “something [was] not right” (valami nincs rendben): this “something not right” is not definable or traceable to a single isolated detail but rather is an intangible, undefinable sense of an entire environment.



Every exile needs a place to leave from, and just as importantly, they need a place of exile, or of emigration. Márai’s chosen destination of exile was not any of his physical residences, whether in Turin, Paris, or San Diego (where he evetually ended his own life in 1989; his ashes were, according to his wishes, scattered into the Pacific Ocean), but the Hungarian language itself. To exile oneself into one’s own mother tongue, surely the primordial source for any writer, of language itself, its narratives, its words, nursery rhymes and proverbs, an entire world-view: Márai was at the same time exiling himself from the world, a world that no longer contained his beloved Kassa, a world that could no longer tolerate the existence of the central Europe that had formed him as an intellectual, a thinker, and a writer. That language which had served as a vessel for his memories would have to serve to contain him as well: a kind of moveable tent, a cloak to wrap around oneself, so that in effect the external surroundings mattered little. It is surely no coincidence that Márai commenced the writing of his diary shortly after his final visit to the city of his birth: Kassa was lost forever, he knew, and there existed but one refuge:

I am connected to my soul and to the Hungarian language: a few books, places, names, in Hungarian. Everything else is indifference and hopelessness.

Márai’s diary, begun in Budapest well before the gathering storm of Fascist Arrow-Cross occupation and the subsequent deadly seige, can certainly be read as the narrative of an internal emigration: in one crucial sense, Márai left Hungary years before he ‘officially’ emigrated—even while he continued to chronicle, with truly brillant perceptiveness, scenes of life in Budapest during the seige:

Monsun. Three dead sparrows lie on the garden path.

Pest. Air raid sirens by night and by day, aerial bombardment...

In the air-raid shelter sits Countess U. on a little stool, in her larvalike beauty, her glittering eyes. Greetings, social chit-chat. We speak of acquaintances, of people who have been driven in all directions by the storm. All of this—in the suffocatingly damp obscurity of the public air-raid shelter, amidst the mothers rocking their babies, the sick, the sullen; amidst the dull explosions of the bombs, amidst the lightbulbs, extinguished because the electrical current has been cut off—takes place in a cordial atmosphere, like in the cellars of the Conciergerie.


The first person says: I have to survive, because the whole thing is just too vile, it’s not worth being destroyed by it. The second: I have to survive, because I’m curious, I want to see the end. The third: I have to survive, because I have things to do, etc. Not even one of them says the truth: that sometimes being alive is almost as good as being dead and unconscious.


A lady seeks me out, and tells me that I can be in Cairo the following day—with some secret assistance from the Gestapo, in a Red Cross plane—if I pay her six hundred thousand pengős, or if I can find someone who will pay one million pengős, and who will then take me with them as a traveller in the plane.

Thanking her for her kind offer, I turn it down. I do not have six hundred thousand pengős, neither do I have a patron, who could sacrifice a million for such a goal. But this is not the greatest of obstacles: it might be possible yet to find such a patron. It would be within the means of a rich aristocrat or a generous Jew to gather such an astronomical sum. It’s about something else: I do not want to leave this place. I do not believe I am mistaken: I know very well what’s coming. It must be borne. I have to finish my book, and then live or die, as Fate determines. (pp. 211-212)

With his usual perspicacity, he already realized how much was lost, how much was going to be lost:

Copious, half-sunny July rain. I stare at the rain motionlessly, and even with a kind of homesickness: as one who would yearn to be freed already of his human fate, and give himself over to the laws of nature. (p. 218)

Márai was already experiencing that entire inter-war culture as a simulacrum: in one entry, he writes saliently that he “missed Europe even before he left it.”



Ibolya Czetter has written extensively and persuasively about the influence of French literature on Márai’s work, particularly the diarist Jules Renard (to whom Márai dedicated an essay in one of his collections), but it may also prove fruitful to embrace a suggestion from Márai himself in terms of literary influences and consequences. It is truly striking, particularly in his wartime diaries, how one after the other the names of the great French thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries emerge: La Bruyère, Racine, Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Mme de Sévigné, Rousseau, and of course Blaise Pascal. It is surely no coincidence that the age of French classicism, which was in effect the first era of the creation of a specifically European exile literature en masse, as well as the first flowering of the diary as a true literary genre, would be that which Márai would evoke in his diaries again and again, almost as a kind of ensemble of guardian angels and spirit-protectors. (We should not of course neglect to mention here other early literatures of exile, such the exile-literature of the post Battle of White-Mountain era in the Czech lands, or the Hungarian exile-literature produced by exiles in Turkey; as for example, in the case of Mikes Kelemen, after the Rákóczi rebellion of the early 18th century.)

As many critics have pointed out, the development of the diary in the 18th century as a genuine literary form prefigured the problematization of the subject in the industrial era of the early 19th century, as well as the narrating self of the 19th century novel. The diary in 18th century French literature was the representative genre of that stratum of society and class whose lack of a stable presence in the vicissitudes of Magyar history was, in Márai’s analysis, the source of so much turbulence throughout that history. The haute bourgeoisie, namely educated people of leisure, who through the example of their own refinement and cultivation, could serve as beacons for the rest of society, as well as guarantors of continuity of both stability and cultural identity. (If this vision sounds somewhat patrician, essentially it is.) The narrating self of the classical diary, before it was to become subject to the turbulence and the beginning of the unleashing of the human unconsciousness which was the essence of the Romantic era, was for a time the faithful mirror of the values cherished by the Enlightenment and the philosophes: clarity, objectivity, elegance of style and of form, as well as the growing consciousness of the world as something to be seized as an object of knowledge.

On a stylistic level, Márai seemed to view the writers of the journaux intimes, as well as writers of literary correspondance and aphorisms, as his most significant literary forebears outside of the Hungarian tongue (for certainly there is an intimate connection between the letters of Mme de Stäel and the diary format; the maxims of La Rochefoucauld can also be read as a kind of diary of perceptions).

Once again, two contradictory movements are at play in Márai’s own wartime diaries. The format, the manner (and mannerisms) of the French classical diary provided him with a vessel of retreat, yet he retreated from the world all the better to seize it with ever greater acuity of vision (just as he saw Kassa from the sky). This ‘seizing of the world’ was a great trait of the Classical diarists (think, to mention an early Anglophone example, of the diaries of Samuel Pepys). Márai could never have retreated into a self-contained, self-created universe as did Czesław Miłosz (whose defence against the “stuffed animals with glowing eyes” of Berkeley—i.e., the insufferable self-satisfaction of America in the 1950s—was to withdraw into the mysticism of Blake, Dostoevsky and Swedenborg). Rather, Márai emphasizes over and over again a philosophy of an unequivocal embracing of the world:

All of this must be seen: hearsay and stories do not give a picture of reality. (p. 218)

According to the French critic Roland Barthes, one of the chief motivations behind the often biting maxims of La Rochefoucauld was, as it were, a literary quest to ‘bring to a halt the anguish of the ambiguity of the sign’. The sign in the Baroque era had acquired a disturbing doubleness, and the function of the maxim was to fix meaning and fix reality in language, to seek ‘the real disorder of man’, to demask the pretence of virtue and piety. As Barthes points out, La Rochefoucauld had, however, involved himself in a dangerous game, for behind every mask lay another: like a box with an endless series of trap doors leading ever downward: Barthes speaks of a ‘vertiginousness of the void’ as well of ‘the nightmare of reality’. Is this the same void that seemed to hover at just a slight distance throughout Márai’s life, the void he finally slipped into? Or is it the void which gapes out in-between each one of the fragments, that thin strip of blank paper which actually contains an abyss? Is it that vertiginous néant which, according to Gaston Bachelard, separates each instant of Time? Barthes saw the fragmentation of La Rochefoucauld’s maxims as a consciously constructed discontinuity, as a prefiguration of the modern fragmented subject, and certainly the fragmentation of Márai’s diary entries are expressive of this: the looming fractures of 20th century European history. Not only a dialectic between fullness and emptiness, but between continuity and fragmentation, which, as Ibolya Czetter points out, creates constant aesthetic tension in Márai’s diaries. Márai writes during the siege:

Only in rare cases does Fate grant the writer the opportunity to come to know a great theme which is personally closest to him, to live it in reality, to live it through to the end, to know it in its final devolvement. This class, the Hungarian bourgeoisie,* the lifestyle of which I was born into, which I observed, I knew in every one of its contours, which I scrutinized to its very roots: and now I see the whole of it falling apart. To write the process of this falling apart: perhaps this is the one truly writerly task of my existence. (p. 284)

Márai’s fragmented sentences, all the while clinging to French classical style, circle continuously around the void that is the world deprived of the order and moral structure and stability which can only be imparted through linguistic formulation. In her excellent study on Márai, Ibolya Czetter analyses the rhetoric figures used by Márai in his diaries, which are extensively those of repetition and of lack. This is hardly surprising for someone whose lived experience did indeed include a surfeit of disruption and of lack: the loss of the childhood home, of his country, and finally of the entire world that formed his generation, ‘which perpetually had to be lost.’ Márai remained perfectly faithful to that world and to the values it represented for literally decades after it had irretrievably vanished: he was in a sense a relic in his own time. In that enveloping emptiness, though, he did find a kind of salvation: the empty indifferent sky, so frightening to Pascal, was instead for him a source of inspiration, as he wrote during the siege:

Of course the echo of Pascal’s words resounds in the Autumnal evening, after the bombing, underneath the stars. But these words no longer sound frightening. The silence of infinite space does not terrify, but reassures me. (p. 274)

This space ultimately provided him with the needed territory for internal emigration which then became the basis for his life’s work, as well as his chosen place of farewell from his beloved Kassa.

Until that day in February 1989, when Sándor Márai journeyed into the silenceforever, bequeathing to us that testament to language and thought that is his Diary.


* Péter Esterházy once famously quipped that the entire Hungarian bourgeoisie as a class was comprised of exactly one person—that one person being, of course, Márai himself.


Sándor Márai: A teljes napló: 1943-1944 [The Complete Diary: 1943-1944], Helikon, Budapest, 2006

Ottilie Mulzet


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