Book Quote:

“Love is a monstrous selfishness.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns  (FEB 22, 2011)

They say there are two sides to every story. In the case of Portraits of a Marriage, there are three. There is the story of the erstwhile housekeeper cum second wife, Judit; the pragmatic and loving first wife, Ilona; and there is Peter’s story, the husband of wife number one and wife number two, whom we find at the end of the novel, lost and destitute. It is not a complicated story, the one told here; nor is it particularly unique or poignant, though the story is laced with insight. The story told here, the story, as the title suggests, of a marriage, is told in straight-forward narrative, albeit from three perspectives, and set against the fabric of a damaged Hungary between the wars. It is an elegant and beautiful book, a rich tapestry on love, marriage and class. It is, as well, deeply psychological, almost Jamesianly so.

Sándor Márai (1900-1989) was unknown to me prior to this novel. A quick Wikipedia check informed me that I was not alone. Largely forgotten outside of his native Hungary, his work has only recently (since 1992) been “rediscovered” and now appears in over a dozen languages around the world. The entry noted that he is “now considered to be part of the European Twentieth Century literary canon.” The cover to this book states that it is a “new translation of a rediscovered novel by the great Hungarian writer…” A quick look at the copyright page informed me that the novel was originally published in Budapest, Hungary in 1941. Indeed, the book had the rugged texture of war-torn Europe, such as only, I assume, can be created in the midst of strife and chaos. In this way, the book reminded me of Suite Francaise, by Irène Némirovsky, such was the quiet and controlled nervousness and tension.

The book opens with a first-person narration. “Look, see that man? Wait! Turn your head away, look at me, keep talking. I wouldn’t like it if he glanced this way and spotted me.” We discover two women, one who’s voice is present, the other mute to us, sitting in the sun on a winter day eating pistachio ice cream. As the women visit, the narrator tells the story of the man who has just been spotted, Peter. The voice we hear is that of Ilona and she is now many years removed from the marriage which she describes. Yet, it is evident that she still loves him deeply. “Does it show I have been crying?…My heart still beats faster when I see him.” For this is the view of the marriage Ilona carries, a view of deep love for her husband, then and still.

Ilona outlines the marriage for us. We learn of their early years, of the birth and loss of a child, of the tensions of Peter’s business, his stoic and precise nature. “…he did read a lot, ‘systematically’–his favorite word–a little too systematically for my taste. I read passionately, according to mood.” That dynamic, Peter’s systematic approach to life, juxtaposed with Ilona’s passion, define the marriage. Eventually Ilona discovers that Peter’s heart belongs to another. The discovery is quietly and calmly confronted and the marriage dissolves. The abiding discovery of Ilona’s tale is her unconditional love for Peter. It is steadfast and complete, and when the marriage is over, she is herself less complete, less a person for love lost.

The second narration, Part II, is Peter’s account of things. It begins, much like Ilona’s, with a first-person observation. “See the pair just leaving, there by the revolving doors?…That woman was my wife. Not the first [Ilona], but the second [Judit]. We’ve been divorced for three years.” Peter, like Ilona, is accompanied by a friend, a foil for the unraveling of the tale. Of his marriage to Ilona, Peter confesses: “I lacked the courage to accept the tenderness of the woman who loved me. I resisted. I even looked down on her a little for it, because she was different from me–une petite bourgeoise.” We learn that Peter has been in love, for many years, with the hired woman of his parents, a young maid. This is the woman at the center of Ilona’s discovery. But his love is chaste. Prior to his first marriage, his affection for Judit is declared, deemed impossible and he subsequently leaves home and country. Upon return he marries a woman more in keeping with the family standard, Ilona. But Peter is incapable of love, it seems. “Is there anyone alive capable of surviving under the reign of terror called love.” With one exception. He loved his child, now lost. “Love is feeling without an end in view,” he declares. But with the child’s death, comes an “end in view,” and so is gone his love. He leaves the marriage and eventually marries the woman of his youthful fancy, Judit.

Judit’s story, another first-person narration, is the most complex and psychologically compelling. We meet her, along with a lover, long after her marriage to Peter has dissolved. “His problem was that he was bourgeois,” she declares without irony. She is in a hotel suite with her young lover and spinning her tale. Obviously, Judit, the erstwhile maid, has risen–clawed, is more apt–above her station and achieved her goal, that is, she is no longer a handmaiden, but a woman of means, a woman men long for. Of her early encounter with Peter, she relates, “The one day he asked to speak to me. He said he wanted to marry me–me, the maid! I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about, but at that moment I hated him so much I could have spat at him.” But marry him she does, as he is the vehicle by which she can achieve her means. But, as she says to her lover, “There was a time when I was in love with him, of course, but that’s only because I hadn’t lived with him yet. Love and being in love don’t go together, you know.”

There is one last story told, a brief account given by the man we meet in Judit’s bed. He escapes the war and journeys to America, where his path crosses briefly with Peter’s. It is a tidy approach and rounds out the tale, nicely tying up a few loose ends.

Although the novel is titled Portraits of a Marriage, it would be more accurate to call it “Portraits of Love.” The marriage is nothing more than the vehicle by which love might be exercised–and lost. Ilona’s love was Peter. Peter’s love was his child. Judit’s love was for breaking away from her petty origins, her poverty, and eventually the war; it was ultimately a love for a future of her creation. Tragically, all three lose what they love. The notion is summarized by Peter at the end of his narration: “You see, one day I realized that no one can help me. It is love people want…but there’s no one who can help with it, never.” (Translated by George Szirtes.)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 3 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (February 22, 2011)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Sándor Márai
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Casanova in Bolzano

Esthers Inheritance



February 22, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, World Lit

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.