Sándor Márai’s Beloved Hungarian Novel
Review by Sarah M. Kramer
The story of Esther's Inheritance's English publication is as intriguing as the tale of guilt and ghosts that the novella tells. Author Sándor Márai was popular in his native Hungary, but his antifacist beliefs made him a target for the Communists who took over the country in 1945. They banned Márai's books and destroyed all copies, including 1939's Esther's Inheritance. The author fled in 1948 and ended up in America, where he lived in relative anonymity until he committed suicide in 1989. French translations of Marai's work surfaced in the mid-1990s, reintroducing Márai's writing to the world of publication.
Márai dealt with political persecution; the title character of Esther's Inheritance faces interpersonal and familial battles. Time has a way of transforming regret from an emotion into a being, a presence more dominant than any corporeal human.
Though Esther narrates her own account, her history does not become maudlin, despite its questionable reliability. Esther begins her story with a telegram signaling the return of her dead sister Vilma's estranged husband. Vilma married Lajos, the man Esther loved, and led the life Esther coveted. Vilma's offenses, like most things in the story, have grown more transgressive in retrospect, not least of all because Lajos wrote love letters to Esther in the weeks before his marriage to her sister, begging her to elope.
Since regret, guilt and the life unrequited are the default modes of operation for most characters of this early twentieth-century novella, everyone's motives are not merely suspect, they are prone to subjection through memory. Lajos, who is a liar, swindler and a cheat, is the family member everyone loves to hate. But Esther's gentle narrative cannot condemn him, even twenty years after Vilma's death frees him to roam the world with their children rather than make a life that includes Esther. Esther's timidity to allows her to articulate what about Lajos is loathsome while being unable to extract herself from his influence.
Through Esther's obsessively retrospective first-person narration, Márai shows that Esther's guilt springs from her past inactions. But Márai does not make Esther's unfulfilled life pitiable, rather he effectively implies that she is, like all the characters, culpable for allowing any of this guilt to rule her present. Lajos' return catalyzes a disruption of Esther's ever-retrospective mindset and forces her to face her life as it is, not how it became that way.
The prose in this edition, translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes, does suffer the occasional translation hiccup, but it's never egregious enough to distract from the compelling stream of "what if"s Márai puts in Esther's narrative. By pulling focus successfully between Esther's present, past, and everything bound up in between, Márai successfully conveys the slow burn of regret that even time can't ameliorate.
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