Like Albert Camus in his novella The Fall, Sándor Márai, a great contemporary Hungarian writer, also uses “First Person” perspective in his novel Portraits of a Marriage.
It is divided in three parts, for each of the three characters, where each’s intimate past in connection with the other two is unveiled.
Ilona, a divorcee, Peter her ex husband and Judit the reason for whom the marriage between the two eventually comes to an end.
The book is written in a powerful and engaging language that makes a reader feel involved as an intruding listener of a private conversation that the character has with a companion or a confidant. Each has a distinct perspective of his/her past and the conflicting background of his/her relationships with the other two.
The book opens with Ilonka talking to a friend; “Look, see that man? Wait! Turn your head away, look at me, keep talking. I wouldn’t like it if he glanced this way and spotted me….Can I tell you who he is? I can tell you, darling, it’s no secret. That man was my husband.”
In the second part of the novel we hear Peter talking to an old friend. “See the pair just leaving, there by the revolving doors? That woman there. The blond one in the round hat? No, the tall one in the mink, yes...They were sitting at that table in the corner earlier….That woman was my wife… We’ve been divorced for three years”
Judit, the third character and probably the most interesting, talks to her lover about her relation with Peter and Peter’s family since she worked as a maid in their home starting when she was 15 years old.
Their different social and economic backgrounds are brilliantly exposed in these monologues and seems to be even more relevant than the romantic aspects of their relationships.
Ilonka explains what the differences are between her and Peter before they got married describing the problems of a middle class woman marrying a richer husband… “Everything was just a little different in their home compared with ours. We lived in a rented apartment; they in a rented villa. We had a balcony with geraniums; they had a little garden with two flower beds and an old walnut tree. We had an ordinary icebox that we filled with ice in summer while my mother-in-law had a small electric refrigerator”
On these same issue Peter tells his friend that he belongs to the middle class but “I was rich” he confesses and .. my wife’s family was relatively poor. Not that being middle-class is a matter of money.”
By stark contrast, Judit who, as peasant, deals with extreme poverty as a child becoming a servant and eventually marries Peter, crossing the class structure. As she proudly describes her family’s background she said; “My father harvested melons …. We were so poor we had to dig a shelter in the ditch and live there through winter, together with the field mice. But whenever I think of my father, you know, I picture him as a gentleman ”
Portraits of a Marriage, as all Sándor Márai’s books, is filled with details of its characters’ feelings out of their vivid conversations. Márai is excelled at portraying time and place; emotions and situations. In this as in all his work, a profound understanding of the human conditions is revealed. This note with the quotes from the novel intends to serve as an “appetizer” to offer a taste of a complex and enjoyable story-telling.
Sándor Marai was born in Hungary in 1900 and emigrated to the US in 1948 to avoid Communism. Clearly he did not want to lose his freedom and individuality. He committed suicide in 1989. What led him to finish his own life is unknown and there are many interpretations. For example, Johanna Granville, a scholar from Wilson Center, reviewing Marai’s Memoir of Hungary, 1944-48, think s that it was “a combination of the trauma of Soviet occupation and the identity crisis of a writer torn between East and West..”
Like many of his admirers, I am strongly convinced that he truly deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature taking into account the high quality of his works.
1. Sándor Márai, Portraits of a Marriage translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes.” Alfred A. Knopf, 2011 iBooks.