When Embers was published in English in 2001, it ignited the career of a Hungarian author little known outside his native country. Embers was declared a lost masterpiece, the book topped bestseller lists both in Europe and the United States, and turned the world’s literary attentions to the life and work of novelist Sándor Márai. Márai had published 46 books, mostly fiction, before leaving Hungary in 1948. He lived in Paris, Rome, New York and San Diego where he died in the late 1980s, alone and largely forgotten. Since the success of Embers, his novels are being translated into English, the most recent being Portraits of a Marriage, a startlingly honest dissection of a romantic triangle set against a dying society.
The story itself is a simple one of love: requited, sought after and betrayed. Peter is married first to Ilona, a woman of his own class, and then Judit, a servant from his mother’s house. Both marriages end in divorce. For Ilona, marriage was about achieving perfection—the ideal house, the right friends, though her love for Peter was sincere. For Judit, marriage was a step to personal and financial freedom, and Peter’s desire for her simply means to her end. Behind this threesome floats the enigmatic figure of the writer Lázár, to whom all three characters turn in their romantic quest. Much of the action takes place in the relatively peaceful years between the two wars, though over the course of the novel, the aftermath of the World War II and the Soviet invasion of Hungary push each character to his or her ultimate destinations.
The story is told in three sections from the point of view of each of the main characters—Ilona, Peter and Judit—with a brief coda from Judit’s unnamed lover, settled in the New York of the 1950s. Because each monologue is written as if the character were actually speaking to another person, the effect is one of listening to a close friend confide intimate details about their personal life. Ilona’s despair at her crumbling marriage, Peter’s dense philosophical inquiries, and Judit’s fierce ambition drive each narratives, but only the reader can put all the facts together and see past the purely subjective truths each character offers.
Beyond the personal stories is the sense of the world crumbling, the invasion of Hungary first by the Nazis and then the Soviets and the destruction of cultural values that could not be replaced. This loss is most visible in the character of Lázár, the writer who stops writing after the war and spends the end of his life reading Hungarian dictionaries, relishing the words that describe a world that no longer exists. Lázár, who never speaks for himself but is seen and described through others’ eyes, may be a stand-in for the author. Márai also vowed to stop writing after the Germans marched into Hungary—a vow that, luckily for his readers, he did not keep.