Review – 6th October, 2008

The treason of an implacable moralist

Sándor Márai: Memoir of Hungary

Review–6th October, 2008


Márai’s oeuvre was shaken out of its coma after 1989, when his works were first published in Hungary, then later went on to reach international success. By leaving Hungary in 1948, he made a decision that proved to be fateful from the point of view of his oeuvre’s future in his native land; at the same time, it was a natural extension of an exile intended to be a symbolically powerful, moral reminder. 

In contrast to the general air of acceptance and success surrounding Sándor Márai’s literary works in Western Europe, the literary world in Hungary remains unequivocally divided in its opinion of Sándor Márai’s oeuvre. Outside of Hungary, Márai is first and foremost recognized as a great writer of fiction whose novels were released one after another in all major languages following the enormous success his novel, Embers, attained in Italy. In his homeland, however, Márai is more commonly praised for his works that bear a closer resemblance to non-fiction. Every credible literary critic in Hungary, for example, agrees that Márai’s Confessions of a Citizen, a two-volume memoir originally published in the 1930’s, is his most significant work. At the same time, many others find his Diary—begun in 1943 and regularly kept by the author, who allowed a heavily edited version of his personal diaries to be published first in Hungary, then abroad following his immigration—to be equal in ranking.  (A few years ago Helikon Publishers in Hungary began to release the complete edition of Márai’s Diary, compiled according to the existing manuscript.)  Not surprisingly, Memoir of Hungary—in many respects a continuation of Confession of a Citizen—is also numbered amongst Sándor Márai’s best works. 

Obscurity cloaks any explanation for why Sándor Márai’s oeuvre has aroused such opposing opinions; suffice it to say, this brief review is too insufficient a means for any attempt to shine a brighter light on a matter of this complexity.  One question, however, must still be raised as it plays a significant role in any interpretation of Memoir of Hungary: this is none other than the the question of “Márai’s homeland”. In Sándor Márai’s case it is extremely challenging to define exactly what this concept might mean, for it is a well-known fact that the author spent most of his life as an emigré. Spent in Germany and Paris, the period of 1919–1927 marks Sándor Márai’s first long-term experience abroad. Most importantly, this first emigration was obviously voluntary. The second period began in 1948 and ended with Sándor Márai’s suicide in 1989. Needless to say, this second emigration was the result of necessity, a decision made not in the spirit of adventure, but as an attempt to flee history’s relentless workings. In light of this, how can the Hungary of this forty-year period—a place where his presence was just as impossible intellectually as it was physically—still be considered “Márai’s homeland?” Even more importantly: how can any literary opinion made in this “homeland” competently judge an oeuvre that was utterly invisible for forty years?

During this forty-year period Márai was not merely relegated to the realm of the living dead: he was nothing less than a corpse, one that was light years away and only made the rare appearance in Hungary’s intellectual life as a kind of skeleton in the closet. Sándor Márai’s oeuvre was shaken out of its coma after 1989, when his works were first published in Hungary, then later went on to reach international success. This unusual resurrection of a “long-dead” author’s works caught writers and critics unprepared; members of the Hungarian literary “trade” were clueless when it came to judging an author and an oeuvre—mostly written in exile—that had mainly gone unread, with the exception of perhaps a few works written before 1945. 

As a result, the task of interpreting Márai became a kind of conundrum for Hungary’s literary elite, and one that still remains to be solved. (Interestingly enough, Hungarian readers have meanwhile welcomed Sándor Márai with open arms; his works are among the best-selling books in Hungary today.)  Needless to say, the West could utterly ignore the complex questions raised by Márai’s literary legacy, for in that part of the world Sándor Márai was and always will be a foreigner, an emigré who can be viewed with almost complete objectivity and without the taint of any kind of political opinion. Unburdened by any knowledge of his Hungarian context, Western readers and literary critics can freely and guiltlessly accept Sándor Márai’s works. This must be, if I am not mistaken, one explanation for the completely opposite opinions surrounding Sándor Márai’s oeuvre in Hungary and in the West.

At the same time it must be admitted that the Communist reign—as diligent as it was in persecuting authors—was not solely responsible for the way in which Márai’s works were laid to rest. In many respects Márai ensured this outcome himself. It can hardly be debated that this haughty (or in his own words, “affronted”) author took deliberate steps in order to become both personally and professionally a stranger in his own land. With this statement we have now arrived at what lies at the core of this work, Memoir of Hungary (original title: Föld, föld!), which can be partially interpreted as a tale of how a breach of faith was brought about in an attempt to remain faithful to ideals the author held to be much higher. In other words, Memoir of Hungary reveals how an implacable moralist came to commit a kind of treason.

Sándor Márai sensed he was leaving Hungary for the very last time when he boarded the train to Switzerland in the summer of 1948. (For a short time in 1956, it did seem his exile might come to an end. Upon receiving news of the revolution, Márai travelled to Vienna, where he reported on conditions at the Hungarian border while waiting for the right moment to make his return. His hopes proved to be groundless, for reasons that are obvious given the revolution’s well-known outcome.) While he sensed he was leaving forever, Márai did not do so merely to save his own skin. Instead, Márai intended his exit into exile to be a statement—a warning not only to his homeland, but also to the other writers living in Hungary.
By leaving, Sándor Márai wanted to show Hungary’s intellectuals that compromise was not an option: in a Communist dictatorship the barest semblance of intellectual independence could only be maintained through regular, artistic self-mutilation. By leaving, Sándor Márai made a decision that proved to be fateful from the point of view of his oeuvre’s future in Hungary; at the same time, it was a natural extension of an exile intended to be a symbolically powerful, moral reminder. The fact that the author would only allow his writings to be published in Hungary if certain conditions were met further underscores his moral intent. Márai’s first condition for publication was the Soviet army’s withdrawal from Hungary. The second was the announcement of free, democratic elections in Hungary. While fully cognizant of his conditions’ absurdity, Sándor Márai continued to uphold them even in the 1970’s when Hungarian publishers expressed a serious interest in his manuscripts.
As a writer Sándor Márai undoubtedly committed an act of self-castration when he renounced all connection to his Hungarian readers—until the future, when the world would be free!—in favor of supporting a higher goal in the form of a moral ideal.  His decision was a conscious one, for he also considered the possibility of his oeuvre falling into literary obscurity when he chose to leave the country. Memoir of Hungary is, among other things, the story of how this decison was reached.
While Sándor Márai’s resolution was far from groundless, it still took many years for him to put his plan into action. The seeds of his plan are first mentioned in his diary from 1945:
No releasing of books. No newspaper articles. At most, a few lines at a time, and only if what I want to say is of great import. For two years all manuscripts are relegated to my drawer... must devote all time and energy to the study of English during these two years… Then take the manuscripts and leave for the West, preferably with a perfect command of English… this is the plan. This is what I must live for. I’ll be forty-six years old by then, and as long as I still have my health, it’ll be worth the effort to start all over again. (The Complete Diary. Budapest: Helikon, 2006, p. 75) 

This summarized conclusion—reached after a long, sleepless night—reveals not only Márai’s desperation, but also his naivety, for no practical consideration appears to underlie it. At the same time, this naivety still contains a kind of somnambulant sense of rationality and perspicacity. Sándor Márai not only possessed a native command of German, but was almost heralded as a German author during his years in the 1920’s as columnist for the Frankfurter Zeitung. His brilliant French would have been more than adequate for the writing of newspaper articles. His choice to learn English cannot be a coincidence, even if such a step seemingly contradicts any form of basic reason. Yet was he not proven correct in the end? Is English not the language spoken by the entire world today? There was, in other words, a strong rational basis to Sándor Márai’s inarticulate desperation.
Memoir of Hungary is in fact a chronicle of—along with other things—Márai’s desperately irrational rationality. The book’s “plot” begins on the evening of March 18, 1944, with the occupation of Hungary by the German army. It closes in the summer of 1948 with the image of the author boarding a train to Western Europe, utterly alone. (Márai’s family only joined him later.) The engine arrives at the Enns, a river that traditionally symbolizes the separation of East from West in Hungarian folk tales. The silence underlying the author’s description renders the Memoir’s final sentences into pure drama:
The night was still. The train started up soundlessly. After a few moments, we left the bridge  and travelled on in the star-studded night toward the world where no one was waiting for us. In this moment—for the first time in my life—I really felt fear. I realized I was free. I began to feel fear.
Even if his decision was justified, Márai was still making a leap into the dark. It is no wonder he felt afraid.
What could have motivated this extremely successful, remarkably well-paid author (in contrast to the staggering poverty experienced by the rest of Hungary’s literary world in the 1930’s, Márai was quite comfortable financially) to leave his homeland? How could he choose to leave his one true treasure—his native language—for the uncertainty of establishing a career in a foreign tongue? Márai was not only highly intelligent, he was also one of the least frustrated, least delusioned authors to be found on Hungary’s literary scene at this time. His startlingly clear vision enabled him to take measure of the horrors to come with an almost mathematical precision. The pros and cons weighed in with terrifying clarity, a fact that most likely added to the author’s feelings of existential anguish. Much later on, when writing Memoir of Hungary in 1972, this is how Márai describes his thoughts upon seeing the encroaching rise of communism:
This was the time when I realized I would have to leave my country; I had to leave it not just because the Communists would not let me write freely, but mainly and even much more so because they would not let me be silent freely. (p. 357)
At the same time, the unfailingly honorable Sándor Márai was cognizant of his undertaking’s wholly individual, impractical and—from a moral standpoint—completely unimitable nature:
Those who remain at home will not through that fact become the accomplices in the outrages committed against humanity. A people can never commence an exodus. (p. 358) 
After all, in Sándor Márai’s opinion a writer (or, to use his own, not particularly appealing definition, “an educator”) faces a different set of burdens. 
When the writer departs, he is forever accountable to his abandoned people because he is a writer only in the language his people speaks. If he crosses the border, he will become a cripple... I had to take this into account also. And many other matters as well: for example, the fact that liberty exacts a very high price. The emigrant is not welcomed anywhere; at best, he is tolerated. Anyone who is not willing to pay this great price would be wiser to stay at home. (pp. 358-9) 
In short, many reasons—not to mention the role played by the author’s sense of “affrontedness,” apparent even in the title of his series of novels written during World War II, The Affronted—lay behind Sándor Márai’s decision to pay this great price. While this decision was reached in an intelligent and thorough manner, Márai’s descriptions in Memoir of Hungary sometimes result in a somewhat lopsided, occasionally unappealingly subjective and narrow-minded portrayal. These characteristics, however, can be forgiven as this is, after all, Márai’s depiction of his own fate and personal outlook on life. 
It should not be forgotten that, parallel to this portrayal of a wrenching decision, Sándor Márai’s memoir is perhaps Hungarian literature’s most plastic rendering of a society’s struggle to emerge out of fascist rule, only to find itself locked in communism’s deadly embrace. Bewildered, cowardly, frequently despicable, sometimes utterly heroic, other times sly and sneaky: this is no more than daily life in Márai’s Memoir of Hungary.
The key to this work lies in its plasticity. The reader actually sees the bombed-out houses, the bridges reduced to rubble, the author’s library of six thousand volumes soaked to mush. We see the perfectly intact top hat resting on a heap of ruins. We feel the chilling misery of post-war inflation and poverty and hurt over the proud entrance of a former clerk—who also lost his entire family in the Holocaust—proudly displaying his high-ranking police uniform in a Budapest café, where he then forces the gypsy musicians to play patriotic songs so he can express his love for the homeland he has been betraying for two years.  Countless figures occupy Memoir of Hungary’s pages. Whether engaged in theft, deception, lying, telling the truth, bestowing advice or passing on the latest gossip, Márai breathes life into them all. First and foremost, this quality is what enables Sándor Márai’s memoir to be judged an incredible work of art.
Sándor Márai: Memoir of Hungary, 1944–1948
Translated and an introduction by Albert Tezla

Corvina–Central European University Press, 1991

Zoltán András Bán

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