Review: Portraits of a marriage, by Sándor Márai
Sharp lines criss-cross the dark purple cover like a badly tied parcel or a broken mirror: it is obvious the marriage in Portraits of a Marriage won’t be a happy one, despite the golden, heart-shaped locket that hangs on the spine of the novel. One of Hungary’s great writers of the interwar period and currently enjoying a certain revival, Sándor Márai was a chronicler of his times. Written over several decades, Portraits of a Marriage closely intertwines themes of love, unhappiness, and the told and untold in human relationships with, as a backdrop, the collapse of Hungary’s interwar society.
Of human relationships
At its simplest, it is a book about the love triangle between Ilona, Peter and Judit. Each character, like a solitary figure in the theatre limelight, takes it in turn to relate his or her views on “what went wrong”. Ilona sits in a café, and a chance viewing of Peter leads her to reminisce about her marriage to him, a courteous and gentlemanly but distant husband beneath the veneer of wealth and social status.
“There was patience and tolerance in his manner, but it was as though he had no choice in that matter and he’d simply resigned himself to living with me, to sharing a home with me, sharing one room of his life,” she says. With her fortuitous discovery of an old piece of purple ribbon in her husband’s wallet, a different facet of the man appears, one which not only threatens her own marriage but also goes against the rules of the rigid society in which she lives.
With the start of Peter’s tale, the stage moves to a late-night bar as he catches up with an old university friend, his own view of the story prompted by a chance glimpse of his second wife with a lover. Peter has little to say about his first wife, Ilona, and a lot more about Judit, at the end of a relation spanning decades and which saw Judit graduate from being a household servant to being a pampered second wife.
And of social decay
Of love there is little question, unless it is as a tortured, unwanted attraction; Judit is rather pictured as an escape, a person whose face did not wear “that glazed look”, “that intense, dissatisfied, suspicious, sickly pall of tension” of the suffocating, well disciplined, lonely atmosphere of Peter’s environment, in which “the rich spend every hour of the day being utterly bored of themselves”.
That Portraits of a Marriage is just as much about the decay of a certain society as about the decay of human relationships is made most visible with Judit’s arrival on the scene. Originally conceived as a novella in its own right, separate from the two first parts, Judit’s part shows a hotel room in postwar Rome as she revisits her life with her new lover, a Hungarian drummer by the nickname of Ede.
At once attracted and repulsed by riches, Judit’s is the account of the “woman on the other side of the tracks, waiting and ageing” but nonetheless determined to climb the social ladder. Coming from the impoverished peasantry and sent to work as a maid in a bourgeois household in the exclusive Rózsadomb district, she waits for her chance to enter a world she cannot stop herself from berating.
After the detached tone of Peter, Judit’s is an acerbic and ironic voice: “I felt someone brought up like this, in a place like this, could never be a whole person. They could only be a copy of a person, something that resembles a human being.” In the three accounts of this (un)love triangle, then, it is not so much love as the impossibility of love and the disillusion of constant misunderstandings that appears, as each account shows a new, different interpretation of events, infused by each character’s respective social upbringing.
Considerations of class, social status and the “frighteningly many shades of gentility between poverty and wealth” pervade the book, which is at once an interesting and a critical description of the privileged lives of interwar Budapest’s wealthier inhabitants.
Each part mirrors and complements the other, taking the shape of a quasi monologue as the successive characters talk to an outsider. This can be a little taxing for the reader, with long bouts of self-reflection only occasionally interrupted by the speaker peppering his talk with comments such as “you ask why” or “have some more coffee” or “oh, they are about to close”, which end up being repetitive after the third round.
Parts loosely tied together
Márai – and his translator George Szirtes – still manages to give each of the trio his own character, never quite the one other observers had led us to expect. But closing the book on the epilogue leaves an uneasy sensation. Written in the early 1980s as an addition to both the original two-part novella and to the later three-part version, it leaves Ilona, Judit and Peter as only a distant pretext for carrying the story into 1950s New York.
Through the story of Ede, who has “made it” in the US, it can be seen as the final goodbye to the decaying Hungarian society from the vantage point of the flourishing American consumer society. With more than a few autobiographical elements interspersed throughout the book, its closing pages also bring a final cameo appearance by Márai himself, an upper-class Hungarian writer who fled the communist regime and ended his life an older, impoverished and quasi-forgotten post-war refugee in the US.
Buy the book
Portraits of a Marriage
By Sándor Márai
Hardback, 372 pages
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011,