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Book Review: Portraits of a Marriage by Sandor Marai

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Hungarian writer Sandor Marai (1900-1989) has been having a rebirth of a literary career ever since his novels have been slowly released into English. His first, Embers, is a great psychological and philosophical experience that I highly recommend. His others, such as Casanova in Bolzano and The Rebels, have both been consistent in their quality. Now, his most recent release into English, Portraits of a Marriage, is definitely worth the read and overall an excellent book. It is great in parts, but perhaps what keeps me from calling it an overall great book is that there are some moments that dwindle on a bit too long, and at times, slightly dip into soap opera.

Sandor Marai is a highly experimental novelist in the true, classical sense of the word. Meaning, he is not afraid to tell his stories in unconventional ways, very often through conversation. Portraits of a Marriage is very well structured and innovative in approach. Basically, the plot is nothing exceptional — he revisits a familiar theme from Embers — the dread love triangle (only this time it seems to be more of a triangle of “unlove” or at least unrequited love). But it is not only what Marai manages to do with this material, but how he does it, and it is this how that makes the novel succeed. Told in three different sections, each voice is relaying a different point of view via conversation to someone else. The first and probably most interesting part is told from the point of view of a wife named Ilonka. Her dilemma is that she loves her husband, Peter, but he has always been in love with Judit, a poor servant girl, who later becomes his second wife. This section is outstanding, and the dialogue is wonderful and filled with insight. Readers not only get a sense of the narrator, but also her perceptions of Peter and Judit.

Ilonka’s marriage suffers not only on account of Peter’s earlier love for Judit, (he knew her years before meeting Ilonka) but also due to the death of their young child, which became the primary bond between them early on in their marriage. At one point, Peter states:

“I’m willing to put up a lot for the child’s sake. I love the child. It’s through the child that I am able to love you.”

Ilonka then admits the reverse is what is true for her:

“I did not dare tell him that it was the opposite for me, that the child was a vehicle for my love of him.”

The second section involves Peter speaking to an old friend, informing him of what went on while the friend was away in Peru. He digresses about his writer friend, Lazar, and also his feelings for Judit and Ilonka. His voice is somewhat cold and detached, though he has an openness and shares details about his past and childhood. Much of what is spoken involves his place in life and the philosophical digressions on what he observes. That which involves his relationship with the women in his life is only part of it.

The third section is told from Judit’s point of view and she’s not the woman that Peter or Ilonka have portrayed in the first two sections. For one, she is after money and craves a life that Peter is unable to give her. Her love for Peter is not reciprocated, and she digresses about how rich the homes she worked in were. Ironically, all of the characters seem to shun their riches off onto another, and so readers are only being given biased views. Relating back to the title — Portraits of a Marriage is exactly what readers are being given, and from there we have to assemble the final portrait on our own. The novel finishes with an epilogue told from the point of view of a bartender who then speaks about some of the observations made by the characters in the earlier sections.

Peter’s writer friend, Lazar, also adds an interesting element, and through him the narrative dips into ideas about art and creating. The two were school friends, and so Lazar knows more about Peter’s past than his own wife, Ilonka does. As the story progresses, Peter talks about Lazar’s writing and how he eventually reached fame. The competition between them is very well developed, as well as their mutual admiration. At one point, Peter admits his friend served as the “witness” in his life — as he is someone who both sees and understands Peter completely. Yet at the same time he acknowledges that freeing himself from another’s complete understanding is practically impossible.

The layering of relationships within Portraits of a Marriage is both organic and complex — scenes flow naturally into one another, and it is more than mere “love triangle” but also the marriage of male friends, and how their friendship is affected once female love comes into play. Likewise, observations continue to be both philosophical and intelligent:

“No, there is something behind beauty, which is, after all, compounded of fragile, mortal matter that suggests a fierce will. It takes the heart and all the other organs, intelligence and instinct, bearing and clothing, to bind together the fortunate, miraculous formula that makes up the compound that ultimately leads to and has the effect of beauty.”

The dialogue is intense and Romanticized, but Marai manages to avoid triteness and cliché. In the final section, Judit’s ruminations might run a bit too long, yet none of the parts are weak. She has moments of melodrama, but this is also in line with her character — she is more soap operatic in that regard, but the novel as a whole is a work of fine literature. Each section begins with one of the speaker’s noticing another, such as Ilonka noticing Peter purchasing orange candy for his second wife, and then Peter noticing Ilonka leaving the scene. The epilogue and Marai’s use of the detached observer of the bartender works because it ties in all of the previous scenes, where he mentions having heard bits and pieces of the others’ conversations.

Portraits of a Marriage is one of the best and enjoyable novels I have encountered in a while. It could very well be a great novel, but for right now I am going to call it near great, and give Embers the slight edge, if only for just its concision. Sandor Marai reminds me of the closest literary equivalent to Ingmar Bergman, and that can only be a good thing.

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