“You are part of me, even now, when time and distance have annihilated all we once had together…Do you understand yet? You are responsible for everything that has happened in my life, just as I – in my fashion, in a man’s fashion – am responsible for you, for your life.” – Sándor Márai, Esther’s Inheritance (131)
My heart was in my throat. Mystery, Larceny, Heartbreak- all physically palatable. I could point to the place where it built up in my chest moving to my throat, an occasional audible vowel of expiration as I read Sándor Márai’s Esther’s Inheritance, originally published in Hungary, in 1939. Thankfully it was a quick read because I do occasionally need to draw breath.
“I don’t know,” he said after a time. “I don’t know,” he repeated more quietly, as if arguing with someone. “Doomed love cannot die,” he finally added. (29)
I have read a few of Márai’s books and there are some similarities. Like Embers, this story consumes a single day in a life. He has a genius for elegiac memories heavy with regret. This story’s focus is the love between Esther and Lajos. His protagonists are often in the throws of trying to make sense of the deepest wounds the heart can survive, always with a yearning presumptive air of perspective. As in the greater part of Portrait of a Marriage, this story is told from the female point of view.
“A woman! A woman!” he said quickly, courteously waving my answer away. “I am talking about you, Esther. I mean you.” (119)
Sentences like that just destroy me. Esther is strangled by her impassioned war between her heart and head. She stubbornly insists on a calm reason and then just as easily slips into a helpless resignation.
It is not enough to love somebody, you must love courageously. You must love so that no thief or plan or law, whether that be the law of heaven or of the world, can come between. (129)
And yet, Márai’s characters are never lost in fiction, the sense of living in the world, the “miraculous ice-cold shower” of reality, full of flawed and weary people is ever present. They never disappear, but nor are they completely illuminated. The modern world can’t reach those stuck in the past, their psychological houses are never wired for it. They are the passed by. Circumstances, pride, and folly all conspire to imprison what wants to be a simple thing. Love.
Now that this danger has passed I can see that nothing is as it was, and that such danger was in fact the one true meaning of life. (45)
But is it true? Is there such a thing as a love that binds without hope of release? I’m starting to think Márai believed so, but he killed himself, which may have nothing to do with anything beyond a tragic chemical imbalance, still, the fatalist, the hopeless, the heartbroken…can only take so much. His loves have such a death knell of permanence. Márai gives into it, while illuminating a sort of ridiculous frustrated tragedy. He underlines the ridiculous by making Lajos…an asshole. But then laments- what difference does it make? It’s love as a wasteland. I hope it isn’t true.
* Translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes.
But the moment I was left alone I was obliged to notice that I had been living in Cloud Cuckoo Land before- clouds heavy with thunder, I should add – and hardly any idea of what was real and reliable and what was not. (41)
Love, if true, as the simple thing it is- I kept thinking of this song as I read the book-