“My experience of Lajos is that he is the kind of man who begins with lies but then in the middle of his lying grows passionate and weeps, going on to lie more, this time with tears in his eyes, until eventually, to everyone’s utter surprise, he tells the truth as eloquently as he had been telling the opposite.”
Full of the kind of dramatic tension and intimacy usually associated with great stage plays, Hungarian author Sandor Marai’s newest novel to be translated into English plumbs the depths of a love thwarted and then revisited years later. Twenty-three years before the book opens, sensible Esther, now in her mid-forties, shared a once-in-a-lifetime passion with Lajos, a man who bewitched everyone who came into contact with him—her brother, her family, and her friends—a man so full of energy—and lies—that life became a dangerous, exciting adventure for everyone around him. As persuasive as he was charming, he lived the good life, often “borrowing” valuable items or money from friends, and they, just as often, excusing him, wanting to believe that he would eventually return or replace what he borrowed (or not caring enough to challenge him).
Esther, believing it important for the family history, has now decided to record every detail of her earlier relationship with Lajos. Moving back and forth in time, Esther creates a vivid picture of Lajos and the magical, mysterious hold he exerted on everyone, concentrating on his hold over her and her ability to resist (or not resist) his versions of the “truth.” When he first proposed to the vulnerable Esther, then twenty-two, she says she recognized him for the charming scoundrel he really was, but she also looked forward to a future with him. What she did not expect, however, was that within weeks he would marry her younger sister and that they would leave town forever. Now, twenty years later, following Vilma’s death, Lajos has returned to the village accompanied by his two children, a middle-aged woman, and her son, wanting to talk with Esther. Their dramatic confrontation and shared memories are the crux of the novel.
As Esther recalls that tension-filled meeting, the reader gradually sees that Esther is not a reliable narrator—nor is Lajos. Because they have never discussed, until now, the circumstances which led to Lajos’s marriage to Vilma, neither Esther nor Lajos knows the whole story, and as long-ago details emerge, the tension within Esther (and the reader) becomes almost palpable. Lajos, we discover, has been even more devious than anyone has suspected, but as he also begins to draw the reader into his orbit, the reader discovers that Lajos may be the one person who comes closest to real self-knowledge. The heart-stopping conclusion leaves the reader in awe of Marai’s ability to use dramatic irony to its fullest effect.
A master craftsman who compresses his novels to the point that every word, image, and detail adds to the atmosphere and developing suspense, Marai has only recently received the world-wide acclaim that he deserves. Writing in Hungary in the 1930s, he opposed the fascists and the Nazis, eventually being forced to leave the country in 1948, when his opposition to the Communist takeover made him an enemy of the government. His books were banned, and many were thought lost forever. In 2000, eleven years after Marai’s death, Embers, long thought to have been lost, was found in Italy, translated, and published in English. Casanova in Bolzano followed in 2004, The Rebels in 2007 and Esther’s Inheritance, originally written in 1938, has been the latest to translated and released.
These novels, all short, follow a common structure, usually involving a confrontation between two realistic and well-developed characters, each of whom comes away from the meeting forever changed. As they discuss love, their long-term conflicts, and their beliefs about what constitutes a good life, they become more self-aware and grow closer to the “truth.” With universal themes and characters who reflect universal human failings, Marai’s novels offer a fresh look at the age-old struggle to make sense of a confusing and conflicted world. (Translated by George Szirtes)
Notes: Also reviewed here: CASANOVA IN BOLZANO and