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
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