Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Portraits of a Marriage - my review

Each of Sandor Marai's great novels explores a facet of love. Embers was about the bonds of male friendship, Casanova in Bolzano about romantic love, and Portraits of a Marriage is about the relationship between love and class, or love and society.

The plot, in two spoiler-free sentences: the book tells the story of a love triangle. The first big chunk is narrated in the voice of the first wife, the second part is told by the husband, and the third part (originally published as a separate novella) is told by the 2nd wife. Originally this was published as two novellas. I believe the first two parts were published as a single novella, "Iz igazi" ("The real thing") in 1941, while the second half was published only in 1980 as "Judit... és az utóhang" ("Judith and the afterword"), although I am unsure when it was written. The translation is again by Hungarian-English poet George Szirtes, who does an excellent job.

I wonder if Portraits will find its audience, now that it has finally been published in English, because while the themes of Marai's previous books (love, friendship) are universal and will resonate in any time or society, Portraits is concerned, nay, obsessed with the struggle between societal class and love, a struggle that may not really interest most contemporary American readers, or at least not to the exhaustive lengths that Marai spends chronicling it.

In Portraits, Marai preserves a lost world, Hungary before WWII, a society stratified with nobility, upper middle class, middle class, "commoners", "peasants", and all sorts of finer gradations within those, all surreptitiously warring and conniving, in mostly tiny ways and gestures, for status. Money and power, too, but mainly (surprisingly or unsurprisingly) for status. Marai focuses especially on the values, habits, duties and weaknesses of those people either inhabiting or jockeying into Hungary's upper middle class, a kind of eradicated tribe (which ceased to exist after WWII and the communist years afterward), an extinct species that he attempts to preserve, as if in amber, for posterity.

Most of us have read books about class and love. Romeo and Juliet, the works of Jane Austen... But in those stories, the class element serves mostly as a plot device, an adversity the protagonist lovers must overcome (the Montagues vs. the Capulets, Emma can't marry Mr. Darcy because she's poor, or whatever). But Marai doesn't use class to create narrative tension. The tension between class and love, here, is his obsession. And again, I suspect that most readers today just aren't that interested in the topic, at least not 400 pages interested. The fact that there's only one other Amazon review so many months after publication bears my suspicion out.

Which is a shame, because Portraits is a titanic masterpiece. It is literature's reigning masterpiece on love and class, yes, but it's a also a masterpiece by any measure, in almost any company. When Embers was first published in English in 2000, excited reviewers talked of re-assessing the 20th century literary pantheon, and the most eager among them suggested that Marai might rank among the greatest writers of the century: Joyce, Proust, Mann... I'm not sure if, now that the rush has worn off and more books published, they would stand by those assessments, but as more and more Marai becomes translated, his place in the pantheon only gets more assured, more deserved, in my opinion. He's a major writer, and this is his biggest, most complex, and, well, major work to be translated so far. (The man wrote over 40 books, so who knows what yet remains!).

Marai again proves himself a genius of humanity in Portraits. Like Proust, he understands exactly how people really think, how they really behave, and captures it all perfectly on paper. He's the kind of writer where every few pages you think (or exclaim), "Yes, that's exactly how life is!" Although Marai knows a narrative trick or two and knows how to craft page-turning plots, in his way, what really keeps you glued to the page is Marai's wisdom. It's a term that can mean many things, but this is "wisdom literature" in its finest and purest sense: the thoughts of an almost superhumanly wise individual. It takes a master to not only bring characters to life as completely as Marai does here, with his three very different protagonists, but to speak so convincingly in their voices.

If you enjoyed Embers or Marai's other books, give Portraits a try. There is so much more to be written about this incredible book.

~Erik Ketzan


Blogger Fabio said...

Paulo Schiller translates Marai's books to Portuguese in Brazil - as other Hungarian writers. Portraits of a Marriage is published here as "De Verdade" and, in my opinion, is one of his greatest achievements. Since 2000, Brazilian readers are being introsuced to tuia great 20th century novelista.

6/21/2011 6:00 AM  
Blogger Arya samaj said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7/05/2011 4:52 AM  
Anonymous clare grant said...

Thank you for your website it is most illuminating
I am a huge fan of Sandor Marai - not as many of his books have been published in English as in German unfortunately but this means there is more to discover
I came across Portraits of A Marriage in a Canadian bookstore and you have reminded me to acquire it here in the UK.
My favourit of Marai's works is Embers but Conversations in Bolzano is a close favourite
I am cultural editor of and I hope to blog on Marai very soon

7/11/2011 12:02 PM  
Blogger LKD said...

A friend gave me Embers which took me months to begin and when I did, I couldn't put it down. One of the most extraordinary novels I've ever read. Do you have any idea how I could get a copy of the film? Not that any film could match the emotional power of the book but I'd still love to see it.
Thank you. Lesley

7/23/2011 7:28 PM  
Blogger E said...

Hey Lesley,

As far as I'm aware the Hungarian film version of Embers is unavailable with English subtitles- I'll poke around tho and see if I can find more info on it

7/25/2011 7:52 AM  
Blogger Theni said...

Az Igazi is a real masterpiece! I first read it in Italian 'La donna giusta" (my knowledge of italian was limited to tourist level conversations)and fell in love. I even tracked down the absolute first hungarian edition, and now I look at it and although I cannot recognize the words I still feel the power of their message. Love your blog, and I've even quoted you a couple of times!

8/19/2011 3:02 AM  
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8/20/2011 4:25 AM  
Blogger Ana Grama said...


I just bumped into your blog as I was trying to find out how to get the contact to the "Heirs of Sándor Márai", as they have the copyrights of his book. I'm trying to adapt one of Sándor Márai's books into a play and would like to try and aquire the rights for the book, but no matter how much I look, I can't get a contact on how to get it. If you know anything about it, could you please tell me? Thank you so much and I'm so sorry to bother you, Ana.

9/16/2011 7:44 AM  
Blogger Arya Samaj said...

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9/21/2011 4:46 AM  
Blogger E said...

^ Ana Grama, I suggest you contact Marai's publisher to get in touch with the people who own the copyrights to his works. In the US, the publisher is Knopf.

9/25/2011 1:37 AM  
Blogger Vati said...

Thank you for your very interesting website. I'm a French fan of Sandor Marai and have read all books that have been translated in French (14 books, a lot more than in English) plus some that have been in German and not yet in French!
He would have certainly deserved a Nobel Prize. Unfortunately his work disappeared at the time he could have been nominated.
I have myself translated from German into French (unfortunately I don't understand Magyar) a wonderful anthology of so-called short forms (thoughts, aphorisms, poems etc.): "Heaven and Earth", real jewels of spirit and style.
It's only intended to parents and friends of mine to show them an other facet of Marai's genius.
For all people who read this blog and understand German, I recommend the Biography by Ernö Zeltner "Sandor Marai, Ein Leben in Bildern".
I intend myself to create a blog in French dedicated to Marai.
Please keep on your very good job. I'll try to regularly put some comments on it.
François Giraud (

9/26/2011 1:43 PM  
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1/09/2012 11:06 PM  
Blogger AleksandraR said...

Hi, just reading the book in English - a masterpiece. I am Polish however and I live in Sweden.... I do feel the 'class' thing that you say is not so familiar in America. I think Europe has not lost it entirely, then I was born in a city and came to live in a small towm... I do feel a bourgeois here ;)

Thanks for this review, it actually encourage me to buy this book. Just started the Judith part, can't wait to see the last twist in the tale :)

My favourite Sandor Marai is 'Book Of Herbs' (my translation from Polish, not sure it is published in English, orig title is 'Füves Könyv'), this is one of the best books I ever read... I 'commited' a review on my blog, in Polish, you can try Google translate if you want to know a bit more about this book (but it is crap for slavic languages)

greetings from a Marai fan!

1/27/2012 4:06 AM  
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1/31/2012 12:24 AM  
Anonymous Deborah said...

Thank you for this blog. I picked up a copy of Embers a few months ago at a thrift store. I had never heard of the book nor the author, but I bought it which is very unusual for me. I sort of became obsessed with his writing and quickly ordered and read both Casanova and Portraits. I agree with your comments regarding Portraits, although I myself do not find it tedious at all. Some ideas, good ones, cannot be explained in a few sentences. He knows very well that which he writes of. Is there a biography written on him? I am wondering what kind of life created a mind like that. Its great to find other like minded readers who also appreciate his talent.

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5/03/2012 9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read E mbers last week, and Esther's Inheritance smitten by Marai...if there is a sequence should I read Portrait next or do you suggest another in the sequence given where I am...thanks

8/07/2012 2:10 PM  
Anonymous Enzel Morgado said...

I've just read "Embers" and am in love whith Marai - it's a work of art, like an impressive painting that you cannot forget. And incledibly profound regarding to human nature.

1/31/2013 4:17 PM  
Blogger bessfones said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2/23/2014 8:53 AM  
Blogger bessfones said...

I've been reading Portraits on and off here in Turkey since last spring after picking up the book at the Owl Bookshop in Antalya. After going to a conference in Budapest late January I am now reading with renewed appreciation.

2/23/2014 8:54 AM  
Blogger Michael Duffy said...

Thanks for this blog site. I have just finished Portraits and was just blown away by it. Had trouble sleeping afterwards, just keep running the story through my mind and trying to come to grips with how he created such a dense and intimate portrait of characters, place, and time. This book requires careful reading and attention. It is a great work of literature. It is, however, not a book that can be recommended to just any of your friends. I know that sounds a little pretentious but, seriously, in 21st century U.S. how many people have the time or interest to work their way through 400 pages of a book set in mid-20th century Hungary? It is not a fast or easy "read" but the rewards are many as the commentators here have discovered. I feel I will be thinking about this book for a long time trying to understand or discover I don't know what but the journey will be rewarding in itself.

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