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Book Review: Esther’s Inheritance by Sandor Marai

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Esther’s Inheritance is now the fifth Sandor Marai novel I have read, and this also happens to be the total number of novels (as of this writing) that has been translated into English. All I can say is that I hope the translations continue, as I don’t think there’s much this man cannot do within his literary realm. Marai is one of those writers that focuses on the intricacies of human relationships — assessing and dissecting motives, presenting flaws and arguing for them, then arguing against them, and leaving some conclusions answered and others open. His writing is muscular and poetic, lean and intricate. His men are often too proud and his women too willing, yet the relationships are complex and the tension is taut.

These intricacies among individuals can no better be demonstrated than in his most recently published novel, Portraits of a Marriage. In it, Marai presents multiple perspectives of the multiple relationships among the characters. In Embers, he presents long dialogue digressions between two men at a dinner table, as they discuss the shared affection for a woman. Esther’s Inheritance is well within the Marai universe, only this time it involves an old woman named Esther who has had a twenty year relationship with a man she knows to be a pathological liar. Yet, this “relationship” is actually one of unrequited love, because throughout that time, her love interest has not been present in her life. Thus, what exists between them is primarily in the past, or the more obvious place that is her mind.

Right away readers are presented with something interesting — the idea that even a relationship that lives in the past is still a relationship if one chooses to make it so. Before seeing Lajos, Esther has come to accept there is no present in her life for him, for why would he have abandoned her, if he really cared for her? Upon his return, Esther is nervous, but feels more alive than she’s felt in years. She notices Lajos’ affected behavior, his need to impress, to constantly feel like his life is a theatre. She notices elements about him that she might not have noticed in her youth. Yet, are the years enough to keep her from him?

Once Lajos begins to assert his power over Esther in his subtle and charming way, he does so very cunningly, but so much so that readers could easily be drawn in by his reasons. Once the two meet face to face, there is an excellent dialogue exchange between them, where she accuses him of lies, and he admits he has struggled with morality. Here his manipulation can be witnessed:

“There are people who are more adept at moral character…there are moral geniuses…You are a moral genius, Esther; no, please don’t deny it. I feel it in you. I am tone-deaf when it comes to issues of morality, practically illiterate. That is why I needed to be with you, or that at any rate is the chief reason, I think.”

While the above scene is wonderfully crafted, the psychology is ever-present, as Lajos later accuses Esther of not welcoming his love, and leaving readers with his final word. He makes it her fault. Yet before this point, readers are given Esther’s dilemma when it comes to asserting herself, and the years of emptiness that resulted from his abandonment. As with life, no one is all right or all wrong, and these dynamics, coupled with the poetic, insightful prose, make Esther’s Inheritance a rich read. Don’t let the brevity fool you — there is much offered in this slim novel, and much to think about afterwards. Marai’s novels are not about plot in the action sense of the word, but more about the observations and thoughts that fill the people he chooses to craft.

Esther asks herself what will become of her, and she asks this of the present, but it is also something she wonders about the past, that is, if she had instead spent the past twenty years with Lajos. She knows she would not have been better off, but feels that obligation is stronger than reason. Ultimately, Lajos informs her that people do not change, and Esther’s submissiveness illustrates this. How is it she comes to feel that she owes him something? A man she accepts is a liar and a scoundrel, and yet she still wishes she had eloped with him. One cannot take Esther’s word as truth either, for just as much as Lajos is a liar, she too has spent years lying to herself.

Esther’s Inheritance exists in more than just the material — Esther has taken affection that should be regarded as nothing more than ephemeral, and has inflated it to mean something more than that itself. Both her loss and gain are in the novel’s title. It is not Lajos’ arrival that brings yet another change in Esther’s life, so much as her willingness to let him change it.

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About Jessica Schneider