Eyes Wide Open

Marai190 Sándor Márai died in obscurity in 1989, nine years before his novel Embers was translated into English and published to great acclaim. Like Irène Némirovsky, Márai was a minor writer plucked from history to reintroduce us to a vanished world. Esther’s Inheritance
(1940) is Márai’s fourth novel to be translated into English, this time by the Hungarian poet George Szirtes. Inheritance was written two years before Embers and shares the same basic plot structure: a cast of characters reunite after decades of separation, only to find not much has changed.

In her youth the title character and narrator was jilted by her one true love, Lajos, a charismatic con man. Well into her fifties in the present action of the novel and still pining for Lajos, who married her sister, Esther is surrounded by eminently sensible people to whom she barely pays any attention. When Lajos sends word that he wants to visit Esther, she immediately smells a rat—and she can’t wait.

Lajos arrives in a red car and an entourage of decadent Europeans that includes his conniving daughter and virtually inert son. As soon as he gets Esther alone he makes the demand for which she’s been waiting: he wants her house to pay his debts. She tries to resist, but not very hard. She’s enjoying his performance too much. Lajos, she observes, “lied the way the wind howls, with a certain natural energy, in high spirits.” She knows he’s just a garden-variety romantic dissembler, but she also sees a grander form of prevarication at work. When Esther points out that he rejected her for her unsavory sister Vilma, Lajos responds a Nietzschean outburst, blaming Esther for the collapse of their courtship. “We did not love each other courageously enough. And that is your fault… Love is of your making. It is the only respect in which you achieve greatness.”

As Esther herself notes, Lajos’s performance is “operatic.” The dramatic tension in this brief novel’s final pages comes from the clash between Esther’s steadfast faith and Lajos’s struggle to believe in something. Márai sets up a confrontation between two people who seem to have mismanaged their lives and their love. As far as Esther’s final decision is concerned, Márai gives the game away at the very beginning of the novel. The surprise comes when we realize Esther and Lajos neither seek nor receive any redemption for their failed lives.  Esther, it turns out, is every bit the Nietzschean Lajos is. Nietzsche must have had a life like hers in mind when he wondered aloud,

What if a demon were to creep after you one night, in your loneliest loneliness, and say, ‘This life which you live must be lived by you once again and innumerable times more; and every pain and joy and thought and sigh must come again to you, all in the same sequence. The eternal hourglass will again and again be turned and you with it, dust of the dust!’ Would you throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse that demon? Or would you answer, ‘Never have I heard anything more divine’?

Esther’s chaste surrender to the demonic has led some critics to detect an anti-fascist political allegory in Esther’s Inheritance: Esther as Europa sleepwalking her way into fascism. Márai was fiercely anti-fascist, but his novel, written during the darkest days of the way against fascism, isn’t polemical enough to fit into a clean allegorical mold.

The key moment in the novel occurs when Esther’s lawyer makes a half-hearted attempt to convince her of the irrationality of signing over her house to the scoundrel Lajos. She points out, however, that if she had lived her life rationally she would have eloped with Lajos two decades ago and her life would have probably turned out worse that it actually did. If Esther’s Inheritance had been a neat anti-fascist allegory, Márai would have presented a more plausible alternative to the demonic. If her world had offered a better alternative, Esther wouldn’t have tossed away her inheritance with such enigmatic resignation. In other words, she isn’t sleeping. She’s wide awake and enjoying watching her world evaporate.

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