Monday, October 31, 2011

Interview with George Szirtes

Interesting interview with Marai translator George Szirtes:

"My Márai is not better than Márai, it is just a possible English Márai that depends entirely on the Hungarian Márai."

Interview at The Oxonian Review

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

Monday, May 23, 2011

WSJ reviews Portrait

Wall Street Journal - Eric Ormsby


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Portraits of a Marriage - reviews

New York Times - Liesl Schillinger by Earl Pike

Sycamore Review by Ashley Albrecht

NPR by Jessica Loudis by Jessica Schneider

Harvard Crimson by Keerthi Reddy

The Daily Beast by Michael Korda

Friday, April 08, 2011

Portrait of a Marriage - annotated

I've started an annotation for the recently published Portraits of a Marriage over at A handy, spoiler-free page-by-page annotation to certain references, ideas and themes in the novel. It's in wiki format, so if you have some to contribute, feel free to add them (after you register to edit).

I'm really loving Portraits of a Marriage. Like Embers and Casanova in Bolzano, this one seems like one of Marai's major works. Whereas Embers tackled the theme of friendship, Casanova in Bolzano the theme of romantic love, Portraits of a Marriage explores the intersection of love and society. It's masterful, and the translation reads beautifully.

Hope you all enjoy the novel--


Monday, February 07, 2011

Portraits of a Marriage - Feb 2011

Next Marai book to be published in February 2011 by Knopf. Can't wait!


~Erik Ketzan

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

More reviews for Esther's Inheritance

Some more reviews around the web:

The Complete Review: "ultra-melodramatic character studies from another age."

The Guardian

Financial Times: "The writing is taut and the atmosphere of suspense carefully constructed, but this story is very much of its time."

The Telegraph, review by English-Hungarian novelist Tibor Fischer: "Of Márai’s work available in English, Conversations in Bolzano is the most cerebral. The Rebels is, I would argue, the best so far, but perhaps too dark for many readers. I suspect Esther’s Inheritance, elegantly rendered by the poet George Szirtes, will rival the commercial success of Embers – I can see the reading groups having a good ding-dong about this one."

~ Erik Ketzan

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Imre Kertész briefly discusses Marai

There's an interview with Nobel laureate Imre Kertész in the German newspaper Die Welt. The interviewer brings up Marai, and Kertész responds:

"... Sandor Marai, whose diaries I think are quite excellent. His novels less so..."

Kertész goes on using the word "Moderne" (modernity) to mean Modernism (which in German is "Modernismus"), and I'm unsure what he means when he applies these terms to Marai. Perhaps a native German speaker can enlighten us?

Read the full interview (in German) here.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Esther's Inheritance, the film

Translator George Szirtes comments on the film adaptation on his blog, here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Critical Responses to Esther's Inheritance

Hungarian Literature Online has a mostly interesting new article, Mammoth, Bard, or Great Author, on Esther's Inheritance and the terrible, awful, horrible possibility that the West is forming the wrong impression of Marai based on the selection of his novels available in English.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Some more Esther reviews

"George Szirtes's translation reads well apart from occasional jarring Americanisms, which I suspect were inflicted by the publisher." ~ The Independent

"Esther’s Inheritance is a frustrating little book. Márai purposefully allows terrible revelations to land without shock. And as Esther and Lajos regard themselves at a remove, inverting the archetypes of the good woman and the scoundrel, we are forced to regard them at one as well." ~ Bookslut

- Erik

Friday, January 30, 2009

Esther's Inheritance reviews

Largely positive reviews for Esther's Inheritance. See them all collected here at The Complete Review.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Esther's Inheritance, coming November 4!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Esther's Inheritance, November 2008

Random House has updated its Marai page and the next Marai novel in English, Esther's Inheritance, will be published in November. Huzzah!

I also note that both Embers and Casanova in Bolzano are currently available as ebooks for Amazon's Kindle (and presumably Sony's Reader), and that Esther's Inheritance will be, as well. I applaud this move-- I personally will be reading Marai in book form but no doubt some readers will prefer the ebook format.

Marai translator George Szirtes has a few excerpts, with some commentary, online at his blog: two thoughts, more.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

George Szirtes on the next Marai novels in English

I shot an email to George Szirtes, the translator of Casanova in Bolzano and The Rebels, asking him if he's working on another Marai novel. Here's what the gentleman wrote back:

"I have just returned the corrected proofs of a novella, Eszter hagyatéka (Esther's Inheritance), and have now received another two, related, novellas Az Igazi and Judit es az utohang. The English titles of those are undecided yet, but they would be roughly The Real Thing and Judith and The Echo (though utohang is also epilogue and legacy - though not in a legal sense). I have yet to see which sense fits best."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Subtropics editor on including Rebels excerpt

David Leavitt, editor of the literary journal Subtropics, talks about why he chose to include the opening chapter of The Rebels in its January 2007 issue.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

reviews of The Rebels

The Complete Review: "overheated, but effective period-piece."

Los Angeles Times: "Márai paints his characters so convincingly that, scene after scene, the story remains tense with suspense."

New York Sun: "The novel is marked by passages of bleak elegiac grandeur."

The New Yorker: "Back in 1930, though, he was still writing books that were merely very, very good."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

George Szirtes profile

Th Scotsman has a profile and interview with George Szirtes, the Hungarian-born Englishman who translated Casanova in Bolzano and The Rebels. No mention of Marai, but there's lots of information on his life as a prolific poet. See also George Szirtes' home page.

Monday, January 22, 2007

hey Knopf, can we get a better picture of Marai on the book jacket of The Rebels??

Knopf/Borzoi has done a superb job of bringing Marai to English so far, in every way except the choice of author photo! The one they used on Embers, Casanova and now apparently The Rebels makes poor Marai look terrible.

Might I suggest one of these, especially Marai as a young man, as he wrote The Rebels at age 30:

EDIT: WHOOPS! This young man is not Marai, but the Hungarian novelist poet Radnóti Miklós! Damn you, Google Images.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Rebels excerpt in Subtropics

The January 2007 issue of Subtropics, a literary magazine from the University of Florida, contains an excerpt from George Szirtes' translation of The Rebels.

Marai in English

Old news, but according to The Believer, Knopf has the rights to a whopping 23 Marai novels...!

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Rebels cover unveiled!

Perhaps also designed by Peter Mendelsund, who did the elegant jacket cover of Casanova in Bolzano?

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Rebels summary

"It is the summer of 1918. As graduation approaches at a boys’ academy in provincial Hungary, the senior class finds itself in a ghost town. Fathers, uncles, older brothers—all have been called to the front. Surrounded only by old men, mothers, aunts, and sisters, the boys are keenly aware that graduation will propel them into the army and imminently toward likely death on the battlefield. In the final weeks of the academic year, four of these young men—and the war-wounded older brother of one of them—are drawn tightly together, sensing in one another a mutual alienation from their bleak, death-mapped future. Soon they are acting out their frustrations and fears in a series of increasingly serious, strange, and subversive games and petty thefts. But when they attract the attention of a stranger in town—an actor with a traveling theater company—their games, and their lives, begin to move in a direction they could not have predicted and cannot control."

Still no cover image, but sounds great!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Rebels - March 2007

Finally! The next Marai book to be published in English will be The Rebels, translated by George Szirtes, who did a fine job translating Casanova in Bolzano. More info.

Hardcover, 272 pages
March 20, 2007

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Hungarian fiction beyond Marai

Tim Wilkinson, the English translator of Imre Kertész, writes on translation and the state of translated Hungarian fiction. Wilkinson notes that only about two Hungarian novels per year are translated in the United States and Britain:

"While the fêting of Sandor Márai is all very well, it would be gratifying to see acknowledgement for more original writers of the recent past, such as Géza Ottlik or Miklós Mészöly."

It would be gratifying, but Hungarian literature and its proponents have done a pretty poor job, so far, of convincing the English-speaking world that Hungarian literature is worth giving a damn about. Apart from the success of Sandor Marai, publishers have recently tried to sell us on the genius of Peter Nadas' Book of Memories and Peter Esterhazy's Celestial Harmonies, two incredibly bloated, mediocre works. Imre Kertész, whom Wilkinson translates, is a fine author, but he writes mostly about the Holocaust, a topic to which entire bookstore shelves are already devoted.

The world can not be expected to care about the literature of an insignificant country of only 10 million people. If Hungarian literature wants to be acknowledged, it has to win readers over through sheer quality. Quality like Marai.
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