The first English translation of a novel by Sándor Márai, Embers, came out in 2001. It had been published in Hungary in 1942, but next to nothing was known in the West about its author: the publisher’s blurb said that he had been born in Kassa in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1900 and was one of the leading ‘literary’ novelists of the 1930s in Hungary; and that, ‘profoundly anti-Fascist, he survived the Second World War, but persecution by the Communists drove him from the country in 1948.’ He went first to Italy and then the United States, committing suicide in San Diego in 1989. The book itself was described as a masterpiece by several reviewers.
What was interesting about the pieces that were written on it was the nostalgia they betrayed for the great European fiction of the 19th century; it was the novel’s ‘wisdom’, ‘passion’, ‘beauty’, ‘intensity’ that was constantly referred to. Here was a novel, it was implied, unlike so much trashy, slick contemporary fiction, one that was about the great lost themes of honour and fate, about the conflict between loyalty to oneself and one’s ideals and the irresistible urgencies and emergencies of erotic passion. So serious was the book – in which two old men, best friends in their youth, meet for one last night after a lifetime’s estrangement, to discuss the sexual betrayal that has marked both their lives – that it seemed timeless. It also seems, from a different angle, like a spoof: a canny exposé of assumptions and expectations about Great European Literature. Márai’s theme seems to be – and this is confirmed by Conversations in Bolzano, the second of his novels to be translated – not merely the ineluctable and ‘tragic’ mysteries of passion, but rather passion as a form of self-importance. God may be dead or dying but passion is not; and passion is now the Great Dictator. This, of course, makes Márai rather more of a writer of his time, a writer wary of the rhetoric of the self-aggrandising. For him the idea of an individual or a nation having a destiny was pomposity at its most brutal.
Like many Modernist novels, Embers is laced with clues about how to read it; and about what reading it may be a way of thinking about, and not thinking about. In its camp melodrama, one of the two men tries to give as honest an account as he can both of his own life, and of his perception of his friend’s life. The friend is pretty much a silent listener; and the novel is an opportunity for an unusual character to say what he thinks about nearly everything of importance in life. It is a contemporary novel in the sense that it is a speaking-freely novel with its own suspicions about honesty. The narrator’s wife, with whom his friend had an affair, kept a diary:
She said she never wanted to have secrets from me or from herself, which is why she wanted to write down everything that otherwise could be hard to talk about. As I said, later I understood that someone who flees into honesty like that fears something, fears that her life will fill with something that can no longer be shared, a genuine secret, indescribable, unutterable.
Honesty is a preparation for the dishonesty ahead, a preoccupation of the criminally minded; or ‘honesty’ is the word we use to acknowledge that there are things we cannot say. If a novelist writes a confessional novel in which the confessor describes a person as ‘someone who flees into honesty’, the reader is supposed to prick up her ears. It is the very desire to give an accurate, an honest account of oneself, ‘to hew to the utmost honesty’, that makes Márai and his narrators suspicious; and not simply because people lie, but because one can never be quite sure what the wish to tell the truth is a wish to do. One of his suggestions, in Embers, is that honesty might be a plea to be forgiven one’s fate.
In Conversations in Bolzano, another story about a fateful triangle of two men and a woman – another story about unfinished business between two men – Márai considers the possibility that a person’s fate may not be the kind of thing that requires anything as portentous as forgiveness. He does this by making his hero an artist – an ‘artist of seduction’ similar, as he tells us, to Casanova. What makes this the more impressive novel is that Márai uses it to expose the disingenuousness of the writer himself. The novelist, like Casanova, may be the man who cannot bear what he feels, a man whose desire is perhaps to reassure himself that there is nothing to desire. And what gives Márai’s writing its brusque vitality in this book, so fluently translated by the poet George Szirtes, is his ingenuity at warding off, or keeping at bay, his own disillusionment with the novel. Like Casanova, he has to be unflagging in his wish never to flag. He has to keep telling himself, and the reader, that it’s worth going on reading the book, and living the life that the book describes. ‘We discover everything too late,’ we are told two-thirds of the way through, though characteristically we are not told how we could possibly know that this was true, or indeed what these discoveries are too late for. It is to the temptation and fakery of wisdom that Márai is addicted, so an unlocatable mockery haunts the book. Giacomo, the promiscuous hero of Conversations in Bolzano, seems to have offered Márai an opportunity to work out whether there is anything he can afford to take seriously.
As with Embers, the story is very simple, the pretext for a series of conversations. Giacomo has escaped from Venice after 16 months in prison for characteristically nefarious behaviour and finds himself, by chance and devious intent (he is, after all, a picaresque hero), in Bolzano, where many years before he fought a duel over a woman with the Duke of Parma. The duke is now married to the woman, Francesca; and the novel moves ineluctably towards Giacomo’s reunion first with the duke, and then with Francesca. The duke is aged, Francesca is still young; and like all the women who have met Giacomo, she has never recovered from the magical and mysterious potency of his character (we are frequently told that, without being in any obvious way attractive, he is irresistible to women, his compulsive unscrupulousness part of his charm). Francesca, the duke knows, has always longed for Giacomo’s return despite her wifely devotion to him. The duke offers to pay Giacomo extravagantly to spend one last night with Francesca in the hope that it will finally cure her of her passion for him, and allow the duke to live the remaining few years of his marriage in peace. The dénouement, so to speak, is the final conversation between Francesca and Giacomo which, as in Embers, is a conversation in which, effectively, only one person – in this case Francesca – speaks; and the novel is worth reading for this conversation alone. It takes up their last night together, and then Giacomo leaves – leaving being what he always and only wants.
A tremendous amount of trite ‘wisdom’ is spoken by the characters in Embers: ‘sometimes I’ve thought that friendship is formed of links as fateful as those between twins’; ‘one never forgets what is important’; ‘no one is strong enough or cunning enough to avert by word or deed the misfortune that is rooted in the iron laws of his character and his life’ and so on. Such grand banalities are spoken on almost every page of the novel with an air of the utmost (gothic) gravity, as though Márai were playing with the modern reader’s hunger for seriousness, suspecting, perhaps, that the appetite for wisdom was now at best a form of decadence and at worst a form of barbarity. Embers reproduces in miniature Fascism’s rabble-rousing, its obsession with deep ineluctable self-evident truths, as if Márai wanted us to think about why we are stirred by such absurd and insidious rhetoric. In Conversations in Bolzano he uses the simple fairytale plot and the seductive hero-as-writer – though Giacomo has never actually written anything – to make more transparent what was too stagey in Embers: the idea that the people we idealise as mysterious and charismatic are the people we are, perhaps rightly, most frightened of. Conversations in Bolzano is a book about love because it is a book about Fascism.
It seems to have dawned on Márai that falling in love, the last myth of redemption left for the secular-minded, could be our most dangerous cover story; that falling in love is an experience we romanticise to conceal our savagery from ourselves – and in this sense his novels are about the necessary death of romance. In his stark vision falling in love is the most destructive thing we do; to accept what he calls ‘the instinctive, half-whispered logic of heart and blood and passion’ is to accept ourselves as the life-hating creatures we must be. Why, after all, would one need to half-whisper such logic if one had confidence in it? The only genuinely moving part of Embers is the case it makes for friendship, as opposed to love, as our only hope for human relations. Conversations in Bolzano is a far bleaker book but a more exhilarating one, because there is no friendship in it, and because the hero-as-writer is interested only in exposing the vicious fraudulence of those who claim to be in love.
In Conversations in Bolzano the Don Juan myth is a story not about the futile predatoriness of male sexuality, or the wilfully naive masochism of female sexuality, but about the ineluctable appetite of both sexes not to know each other. Giacomo and his female accomplices share, above all, a passionate lack of interest in the object of their desires. Indeed people who love someone in the very best sense of the word will leave them, as Giacomo leaves the Duchess of Parma, because to abandon someone is to protect them from the delusions that love entails. Several characters in the novel tell us, in different ways, that in love the so-called object of desire is virtually irrelevant: nothing much more than a prompt or a cue to release the desired desire. The Duke of Parma tells Giacomo:
You know very well that we do not love people for their virtues, indeed, there was a time when I believed that, in love, we prefer the oppressed, the problematic, the quarrelsome to the virtuous, but as I grew older I finally learned that it is neither people’s sins and faults nor their beauty, decency or virtue that makes us love them . . . We simply have to accept the fact that we do not love people for their qualities; not because they are beautiful and, however strange it seems, not even because they are ugly, hunchbacked or poor; we love them simply because there is in the world a kind of purpose whose true working lies beyond our wit, which desires to articulate itself as much as an idea does.
The duke is telling his rival that he shouldn’t take Francesca’s passion for him personally; and Márai is using the duke to say that something called love – or Schopenhauer’s Will, or Freud’s Unconscious (Márai is clearly well read in this particular tradition) – is organising our lives despite us, merely using the people we come across to realise its desire. At the same time it is clear that Márai is more convinced by the description of falling in love than by the explanation for it; he is wary of the mysticism of grand abstractions. At the point of anxiety, at the moment we realise that our desire is unintelligible to us, grandiose, mystifying theory-making takes over. We are not sleep-walking, we are walking to some cosmic tune; we are part of something immense and omnipotent. We are not foolish and random, but driven and fated (in both senses). Lovers – ‘those peculiar tyrants’, Giacomo calls them – need a big story to stop them seeing the overwhelming ‘selfishness’ of what they dignify with the word Love.
Giacomo is the trigger for every woman’s private drama of passion; but no woman apart from Francesca has a comparable effect on Giacomo. We are invited to wonder whether Giacomo is a man frightened of his feelings, as they say, or a person who has seen through the last myth that makes modern people’s lives seem worth living: the myth of a redemptive love, whether for a god, an individual or a homeland. What makes Conversations in Bolzano gripping is Márai’s determination that Giacomo, the man who so patently needs to be dismissive, cannot so easily be dismissed by us as a cynic. He is, rather, Márai’s attempt, born perhaps of the political reality he endured in prewar and wartime Hungary, to forge a realistic, unsentimental account of what a viable kindness between people would now look like.
So Márai reserves his suspicion more for what the other characters make of Giacomo than for his actions, which are often surprisingly gentle and sympathetic. There is, we are told, ‘something inhuman’ about his face; according to the Duke of Parma, he is ‘living the reality that they, the virtuous, the shuffling dare only dream about’; he is referred to several times in quasi-mythical terms as ‘the stranger’; there is ‘something idiotic, strange and fearsome’ in his answers to the questions he is asked. At one point people begin to believe that he can cure them of their unhappinesses, so he sets up as a ‘quack’ and is remarkably successful, but he can never be trusted because he ‘lives by the laws of his own nature’ and his own nature has a logic that is by definition inconsiderate. At different moments he is compared to an actor, a musician, a priest, a doctor, a bat, a great predator, an illness, but most often he is described, explicitly or implicitly, as a seducer. He is, as Camus said of the charming man, a person to whom people say yes before he has asked them for anything. As in Embers, Márai is creating a collage, a cartoon of contemporary clichés – some literary and some from popular culture – as a kind of exercise in credulity. And when we are seduced by his caricature of the uncannily seductive man, is the same credulity in play that makes us believe both the Fascist and the theorist of Fascism, the lover and the theorist of love? ‘Everywhere people wanted miracles,’ Giacomo notes. ‘They wanted love that would cater to their vanities.’ It is part of one’s own vanity to believe in miracles. Giacomo is the one person in the book who does not believe in them. His quest is for a scepticism that is neither bitterness nor disappointment.
Giacomo’s patron, the mysterious and mysteriously benign Signor Bragadin – it is one of the novel’s subtleties that Márai makes goodness much more uncanny than evil – ‘knew humanity’s most painful obligation is not to be ashamed of true feeling even when it is wasted on unworthy objects’. And yet so much in this extraordinary novel conspires to persuade us that the characters never really know or possibly never have true feeling; and that they have no way of working out whether the objects of their feeling are worthy or not. Things are quite simple if you believe either in the validity of the desire, or in the validity of the object of desire; but if, as Márai keeps suggesting, such clarities are no longer available, all we are left with is nostalgia. Nostalgia for knowing what we want, and for knowing where and who we can get it from is going to be our most dangerous temptation. It is the temptation in the fascism of falling in love.
At the end of the book there is an attempt – which inevitably fails – to save Giacomo from the apparently stark realism that his life seems to be based on. Francesca makes an astonishingly eloquent case for a different kind of love, one that someone as intelligent and canny as Giacomo could believe in without compromising the so-called logic of his nature. It is a fascinating piece of writing because it is so clearly sincere and yet can be read from so many different points of view (Márai doesn’t after all assume that because something is heartfelt it is necessarily true or useful). It can be heard, for example, as a woman trying to persuade – or remind – a man that he is really a child, or indeed really a woman. It can be heard as a woman’s account of how she loves, irrespective of the man’s complicity or collaboration – or agreement. It can sound like very subtle blackmail in its wish to express an unsubmissive yet apparently unconditional love. Or it can sound like love as an ultimate freedom for the lover and not simply for the beloved. It has to be read because it is in the best sense unparaphrasable; but the most poignant thing in the book is the way this monologue modulates into resignation as Francesca begins to realise that even though, or perhaps because, she has seen and accepted Giacomo as he is – it was never her intention to change him, only to show him that she could see this – he still has to leave her. Indeed, his leaving her is the only honest acknowledgment of her words that he can offer. Whether lovers are the people who cannot be together, or the people who must not, for their own safety, be together, is the conundrum presented in this book.