Sándor Márai
Sándor Márai; drawing by David Levine


We are with the old General, Henrik, in his castle in Hungary. The year is 1940. For twenty years the General has not appeared in public. Now he is to have a visitor, the bosom friend of his youth, Konrad.

The General gazes at the portraits of his parents: his father the guards officer, his mother the French noblewoman who tried to fill the granite mausoleum of a castle with color and music but in the end succumbed to its cold weight. In a long flashback he remembers how, as a boy, he was taken to Vienna to be enrolled in a military academy. There he met Konrad, and the two became inseparable. During vacations in Hungary they rode together, fenced together, swearing to remain chaste. “There is nothing to equal the delicacy of such a relationship. Everything that life has to offer later, sentimental yearnings or raw desire, intense feelings and eventually the bonds of passion, will all be coarser, more barbaric.”

The boys grew up, joined the guards together, shared quarters. Konrad began to spend evenings alone, reading. Henrik lived a conventional guards officer life. Even when he married the beautiful Krisztina, the bonds of comradeship seemed unbroken.

The flashback ends. The old General opens a secret drawer and removes a loaded revolver.

Konrad arrives at the castle and tells Henrik the story of his life since they parted. After a long career in the tropics, working for the “Colonial Company,” he settled in England. In turn Henrik tells of his resignation from the army when the monarchy was abolished. The two agree that the post-1919 order means nothing to them. Konrad: “My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded…. What we swore to uphold no longer exists…. There was a world for which it was worth living and dying. That world is dead.” Henrik disagrees: “That world is still alive, even if in reality it no longer exists. It lives, because I swore an oath to uphold it.”

Lightning strikes the electricity network. In the castle the two old men continue their dinner by candlelight. A hundred pages have passed. We are halfway through Embers (Hungarian title: The Candles Burn Down). It is time for Henrik to proceed to business.

For forty-one years, he tells Konrad, he has been plagued by a question to which he must now have an answer. In fact, if Konrad had not come, he would have set out to find him, even in “the bowels of hell.” For Konrad’s benefit, and the reader’s, he rehearses what occurred on a certain fateful day in 1899 when he called at Konrad’s bachelor apartment, and to his surprise—he had never been there before, he was expecting a spartan setup—found it full of beautiful objects, “curtains and carpets, silver, ancient bronzes, crystal and furniture, rare woven materials.” As he stood marveling, Krisztina stepped through the door. The scales fell from his eyes.

Now he wants the truth: Konrad and Krisztina were having an affair, but were they in addition plotting to kill him, only for Konrad to lose his nerve at the last minute?

He recalls his father’s verdict on Konrad: that Konrad is not a soldier at heart. Like Krisztina (dead these many years), Konrad is a music lover. Henrik has always disapproved of this, detecting in the kind of music he plays a call to passion, to anarchy. Echoing the pathologically jealous Podnyshev in Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, Henrik denounces music as an incomprehensible language used by “select people” to say “uninhibited, irregular things that are also probably indecent and immoral.” “You killed something inside me,” he tells Konrad. “Tonight, I am going to kill something inside you.” Yet now that he has Konrad at his mercy, his desire for revenge seems to be palling. With age we begin to accept that “our desires do not find any real echo in the world…. The people we love do not love us, not in the way we hope.” What he wants from Konrad is simply the truth.

To Henrik’s questions, accusations, and threats Konrad gives no response. At dawn he departs; the revolver remains unused.

In Embers nothing much happens. Krisztina is a shadow, Konrad a stubborn silence. The novella is really a vehicle for Henrik to ponder aloud the mutations of jealousy and to speak his thoughts on life; it reads like a sometimes clumsy transcription of a stage play.

The subjects on which Henrik speaks his thoughts include the newly erupted war (a world gone mad); primitive peoples (at least they have retained a sense of the sacral nature of killing); the masculine virtues (silence, solitude, the inviolability of one’s word); friendship (a feeling known only to men; nobler than sexual desire because it asks for nothing in return); and hunting (the only arena left in which men can experience “the forbidden joy,” the urge, neither good nor evil, to triumph over one’s antagonist).


Henrik is not just a crusty old retired officer: he reveals himself as a disciple of a vulgarized Nietzsche, locked into the ethos of the unreconstructed European military elite and its homoerotic mystique. One way of reading Embers is as a work of irony, fashioned to allow the Henriks of the world to expose themselves in their own words. For such a reading to work, we must take the book as a seamless piece of imposture from which Márai’s own voice is deliberately withheld, Henrik’s coarseness of mind being matched up with appropriately clichéd language and an appropriately crude mise en scène: a Gothic castle haunted by “intangi-ble presences”; “exquisitely charming” porcelain to adorn his table; ties “too deep for words” between him and the ancient retainer who looks after his needs; “ancient texts” to consult in his quest for the meaning of life, etc., etc.

Another reading of this enigmatic book—enigmatic because so determinedly out of touch with its times—is possible, however, one that would give fuller weight to Márai’s pessimism about our ability to know other people, and his stoical acceptance of not being known himself. “In literature, as in life,” he writes in his memoir Land, Land!, “only silence is ‘sincere.'” If you give up your inmost secret, you give up your self, cease to be yourself (hence Márai’s disdain for psychoanalysis, with its therapeutic ambitions). Even if in his heart the old General feels he is not the caricature of an Imperial Guards officer that he seems to be, he may not protest, but must act out his role to the end. Márai writes:

We not only act, talk, think, dream, we also hold our silence about something. All our lives we are silent about who we are, which only we know, and about which we can speak to no one. Yet we know that who we are and what we cannot speak about constitutes the “truth.” We are that about which we hold our silence.

In such a reading, it is perhaps Konrad, with his blank refusal to excuse himself, and Krisztina, who from that fateful day of discovery until her death never speaks to her husband (“a strong personality,” he comments admiringly), who are truest to themselves.

Embers, published in Budapest in 1942, can profitably be read side by side with the novella Eszter’s Legacy, published three years earlier. Like Embers, Eszter’s Legacy seems to have been conceived as a play. It has the same focus on a single character onstage throughout, a similar cryptic psychology issuing in an unexpected act: a middle-aged woman in straitened circumstances signing over her property to a man she knows perfectly well is bamboozling her with sentimental lies. Something seems to be compelling her to be fooled, she notes with detached amusement. She could resist, but to do so would be to act out of character, to fight against the caricature, that of the woman who loves to be lied to, loves to yield. To resist would be to cry out against the theater of life, to try to emerge from the sleepwalk of destiny.

Eszter’s Legacy is less daring than Embers in its literary strategies, more transparent about its paternity—Chekhov, Strindberg—and therefore a perhaps less puzzling introduction to Márai’s austere fatalism.


Sándor Márai was born in 1900 in the provincial city of Kaschau in Hungary, which after the split-up of the Danube Monarchy in 1919 became Kosice in Czechoslovakia. His father was a lawyer. On the father’s side the family was of German origin: the name had been Grosschmid, but in the wake of the uprisings of 1848, in which they had fought on the Hungarian nationalist side, they had changed it.

Márai’s education was interrupted by the World War. He was called up at the age of seventeen but seems to have spent most of his service hospitalized. After a brief postwar flirtation with the student left, he went abroad.

In Leipzig he enrolled for a course at the newly created Institute for Journalism, but found it too academic. He moved to Frankfurt, where the lively intellectual atmosphere made him feel more at home. He had a gift for making contacts, and was soon publishing in the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung. He read Kafka and translated some of his stories into Hungarian.

In 1921 he enrolled at the University of Berlin. One possibility before him was to acculturate himself fully and pursue a career as a German writer. Another was to continue the life of a free-floating intellectual of looser Central European identity. He chose the latter. In 1923, having married a girl from Kaschau, he gave up on Berlin and moved to Paris. For five years he used Paris as a base, traveling extensively. He wrote for Hungarian newspapers; he also wrote his first novel, which he was later to repudiate.


In 1928 he returned to Hungary and settled down. He wrote voluminously—sixteen books between 1930 and 1939—and won a broad readership in both Hungary and the German-speaking world. He lived a private life, belonged to no political party. During the war years the stream of publications continued unabated. They included a memoir of his return to Kaschau, once again part of Hungary. In 1943, along with other Hungarian authors, he signed an open letter calling for a defense of what he saw as a threatened Hungarian culture. He began a diary, written with publication in mind, the first volume (1943–1944) appearing in 1945.

Between 1945 and 1948 Márai published eight more books. But as the Communist takeover, directed from Moscow, moved into gear, the official attitude toward him grew frosty. Reading the writing on the wall, he went into exile, first in Switzerland, then in Italy, then in New York. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 gave him new hope. He returned to Europe, only to be met by a stream of defeated refugees. In 1979 he and his wife followed their adopted son to California, where he lived until his death by suicide in 1989.

During his exile Márai was published by a Hungarian-language house in Toronto and translated in France and Germany. Five further volumes of his Diaries appeared between 1958 and 1997. In 1990 he was posthumously awarded the Kossuth Prize, Hungary’s highest honor.

The only book coming directly from Márai’s American experience is The Wind Comes from the West, a collection of travel pieces based on a trip he took in the 1950s through the Southwest and South, with a dip into Mexico. The test of travel writing is whether it tells the natives something new about themselves. Márai’s information about the United States seems to come from newspapers rather than from personal observation; his commentary is rarely fresh or striking. It is hard to imagine Americans finding this book of much interest, except perhaps tangentially, as a record of what a European of Márai’s generation saw in the United States of those days (San Diego, for instance, is commended for its compact city center and its South Italian elegance).


Márai’s greatest popular success was Confessions of a Bourgeois (1934). When it first came out, this was taken to be a work of autobiography. Alarmed, Márai added an authorial note to the third edition stressing that what he had written was a “fictional biography” whose characters “do not live and have never lived in the real world.” Nevertheless, the career of the hero of Confessions follows pretty much the contours of Márai’s early life as far as we know it, while his opinions are entirely consistent with Márai’s own. It will be left to a future biographer to tease out what if anything is invented.

The first volume of the Confessions takes us through our unnamed hero’s childhood and youth, first in his parents’ comfortable home in Kaschau, then in boarding school in Budapest. This loving, leisurely evocation of a way of life long gone is the most attractive part of the book. It is a way of life that Márai never made an emotional break with: that of the central European Mittelstand, hard-working, patriotic, socially responsible, respectful of learning.

The second volume follows the hero’s Wanderjahre as he drifts through postwar Europe, first as a less than committed student, then as a freelance writer, from Leipzig to Frankfurt to Berlin to Paris to Florence until, in 1928, he returns to Budapest to settle down and write seriously.

With Hungarian forints in his pocket, he finds himself well off in inflation-ridden Berlin. Together with some friends he hires an office and publishes a magazine. He has erotic adventures; he writes his first play. Never has life been so gay and carefree.

In Paris, he and his new wife try out life on the Left Bank. They are miserable. The food is poor, hygienic arrangements are appalling, they cannot understand Parisian speech. “We lived like exiles in a primitive, tight-fisted city.” After a year they give up and move to the Right Bank, where they rent a comfortable apartment, import a maidservant from Kaschau, buy a car, live in greater style. He is still drawn to Montparnasse (“a university seminar, steambath, and open-air stage in one”), but as an onlooker rather than a participant.

Gradually he learns to be more charitable to the French. They may be hardheaded and miserly, the war may have undermined their confidence, but they have not lost their quintessential sense of proportion. In their self-conscious lack of taste they are almost endearing. Nor are they afraid to reveal their feelings.

As for the Germans, with their mythic and unexpiated sense of guilt, their mass tendencies, their complicated bellicosity, their disturbing uniforms, their pitiless craving for order and inner lack of order, they may well constitute a danger to Europe. Yet behind this “pedantic, crazed” Germany glimmers another, softer Germany, the Germany of Goethe and Thomas Mann. Who knows which will win out?

The book ends with the hero ensconced in his study in Budapest, full of misgivings about the way the world is heading and about his own prospects. In the ten years he has been away he has lost his feel for his mother tongue. All over Europe the level of culture is sinking; civilized standards are waning; the herd instinct reigns. Yet even if it does make him sound like a sixty-year-old, he will stand up for the bourgeois Enlightenment—“an age, generations long, that proclaimed the triumph of reason over instinct and believed in the power of the spirit to resist and curb the drive to death.”

As a work of fiction, Confessions of a Bourgeois is episodic and lacking in drama. As a memoir of artistic life in Berlin and Paris of the 1920s, it is short on observation and superficial in its judgments. It is best read as what its title says it is: a statement of faith by a young man who, having experimented with living as an expatriate bohemian, and having seen the disquieting developments in Italy and Germany, confirms for himself what he seems to have known all along: that in every respect that matters he belongs to a dying breed, the progressive bourgeoisie of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


Among Hungarians the consensus seems to be that Márai will be remembered in the end for his six volumes of diaries. These are not yet available in English; the recent German translation has been harshly criticized for the sloppiness of its editing.

With the diaries can be classed the unfortunately titled memoir Land, Land!, first published in Toronto in 1972. (The title recalls the cry of the sailor on watch in Columbus’s flagship when he sighted the New World.) Land, Land! has appeared in English, in a poor translation emanating from Budapest, under the title Memoir of Hungary 1944–1948. Until we have the diaries in English, and/or more of the fiction, Land, Land! will be the most substantial work by Márai to which English speakers have access, and our estimation of his work will have to depend heavily on it.

Land, Land! is a memoir of Márai’s life from the arrival of the Red Army on the outskirts of Budapest in 1944 to his departure into exile in 1948. It is not strong on incident—Márai was not a witness to any actual fighting, and the immediate postwar period was largely a matter of scraping together a living in a devastated city. It consists rather of a chronicle of political, social, and also spiritual change in the capital as the Communist Party tightened its grip on all phases of life.

For some weeks in the summer of 1944 Márai had to share his villa north of Budapest with Russian soldiers, and the forced propinquity of the tall, elegant Middle European who spent his free time absorbed in Spengler’s Decline of the West with Russian, Kirghiz, and Buryat peasant boys, their rudimentary exchanges mediated through a Hungarian who knew some Czech, was an eye-opener to both sides. “You are not a bourgeois,” one of the Russians tells Márai, “[because] you don’t live on wealth or on the labor of others, but from your own labors. Still… in your soul you are a bourgeois. You are holding fast to something that doesn’t exist anymore.”

As for Márai, in his Spenglerian frame of mind he privately lumps Soviets with Chinese as “Easterners.” Between the Eastern and the West-ern consciousness, he suggests there is an unbridgeable gulf: Easterners have inner spaces, created for them by their vast geographies and histories of subjection, where Westerners cannot follow. The Russians may have chased the Germans out of Hungary, “but freedom they could not bring, [they themselves] did not have it.” Young Russians are barely to be distinguished from the Hitlerjugend: “In their souls the reflexes of inherited culture [have] died out.”

Márai is well aware that the Nazis, whom he despised, used a vulgarized Spengler as one of the pillars of their theory of history, yet he falls back on Spengler for his own historical interpretation of the westward expansion of Russia. Why? Partly because the fusing of culture and race in Spengler is compatible with his own notion of culture bred in the bone, partly because Spengler’s historical pessimism is congenial, but partly also because Spengler belongs to his fund of reading and one of the more pigheaded articles of Márai’s conservative credo is to give up nothing without a fight.

Once the Germans are gone, Márai and his wife return to Budapest, where they find their apartment in ruins and his library largely destroyed. They move to makeshift quarters, waiting along with their fellow citizens for the next step in their liberation, namely the return of Hungary to Christian, Catholic Europe. When the realization dawns that they are waiting in vain (Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, says Márai, captures the mood exactly), that Hungary has been abandoned, a wave of randomly directed hatred spreads over the country. In fact, contends Márai, psychotic hatred spread all over the world after the war, hence the rise of so many vengeful revolutionary movements.

More interesting than Márai’s pronouncements on world history are the stories he has to tell of the lives of ordinary people in Budapest, first under Russian occupation, then under Hungarian Communist rule. Inflation ravages not only the social but the moral life of the country. The secret police return, the same despicable human types as before, recruited from among the “proles,” just in new uniforms. There is a striking eight-page anecdote about a Jew, hunted during the war, now a powerful police officer, who sits down in the fashionable Café Emke and has the gypsy band play patriotic tunes for him from the fascist 1930s, smiling with pleasure while Kirghiz soldiers watch mistrustfully from the next table. “Straight out of Dostoevsky,” comments Márai.

Should he ever have returned to Hungary, Márai asks himself? He thinks back to the day in 1938 when the news came that Chancellor Schuschnigg of Austria had capitulated to Hitler’s threats and resigned. Like everyone else, Márai knew the world had shifted beneath his feet. Yet the next day he played his usual game of tennis, had a shower and a massage. He is not proud of himself. “One is always ashamed when one finds one is not a hero but a dupe—a dupe of history.” But what should he do now? Pour ashes over his head? Beat his breast? He refuses. “All I regret is that, while I had the chance, I did not lead a more comfortable life with more variety.”

It takes a fair amount of self-confidence, even arrogance, to write like this. Land, Land! is a more deeply revealing confessio than Confessions of a Bourgeois. About himself Márai is candid: like the rest of the Hungarian elite, he has failed to respond imaginatively to the crises of the twentieth century. He has behaved like a caricature of the bourgeois intellectual, scorning the rabble of the right and the rabble of the left, retreating into his private enjoyments.

Yet, he goes on, that does not mean that Europe’s bourgeoisie should be cast on the scrapheap of history. Identity is not a purely private matter. We are not just our secret selves, we are also the caricature of ourselves that exists in social space. Since we cannot escape the caricature, we may as well embrace it. Besides, “it was not only I who was a caricature in…the time between the two world wars: in the whole of life in Hungary—in its institutions, in the way people looked at things—there was something caricatural. It is good to know one is not alone.”

In 1946 Márai traveled to Switzerland, Italy, and France. In France he is on the lookout for the “courageous and exact self-criticism, the moral accounting” he expects of the French, but finds nothing of the kind. The French, it would seem, want only to resume their old ways, ignoring history.

Switzerland gives rise to melancholy ruminations on the death of humanism, Europe’s great gift to the world, in Auschwitz and Katyn. What does a Europe that has lost its sense of humanistic mission hold for a “fringe European” like himself? The Swiss look with scorn on their poor, shabby visitor. At least the Russians don’t do that.

Back in Hungary the crackdown has started, the secret police are everywhere. Márai ceases to write for newspapers, but does continue to publish books, including two volumes of a trilogy about the Hitler period, which the influential Marxist critic Georg Lukács savages in a review, choosing to read what Márai has to say about the fascists as a veiled comment on the Communists. Thereafter Márai falls silent, living modestly on his royalties. He spends his days immersed in the minor novelists of nineteenth-century Hungary, and their stories of the world of his childhood.

More and more pressure is brought to bear on bourgeois intellectuals to endorse the regime. It becomes clear that even the freedom to be silent, as a form of internal exile, will be taken away. Márai consults his beloved Goethe, and Goethe tells him that if he has a destiny it is his duty to live out his destiny. He makes preparations to leave. Strangely, no official obstacles are placed before him.

Years pass, years of impotence and exile, cut off from “the wonderful, lonely Hungarian language,” yet Márai’s faith in the class into which he was born, and the historical mission of that class, remains unshaken:

I was a bourgeois (even if only in caricature) and am still one today, though old and in a foreign country. To be a bourgeois was for me never a matter of class status—I always regarded it as a vocation. The bourgeois remained for me the best thing that modern Western culture produced, for the bourgeois produced modern Western culture.


The recent flare-up of interest in Márai in Europe is not easy to explain. During the 1990s five of his books appeared in France without attracting more than respectful reviews. Then suddenly in 1998 Márai was on the best-seller lists in Italy. Promoted by the critical impresario Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Embers in its German translation sold 700,000 copies in hardback. “A new master,” wrote a reviewer in Die Zeit, “whom in the future we will rank with Joseph Roth, with Stefan Zweig, with Robert Musil, with who knows what other of our faded demigods, perhaps even Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka.”

Embers is one of three Márai titles that Knopf will be publishing—the other two are The Rebels and Conversations in Bolzano. Embers has been translated by Carol Brown Janeway not from the Hungarian but at second hand from a German translation—questionable professional practice. It comes with a publicity handout in which some tiresome untruths about Márai are recycled: that Embers was “unknown to modern readers” until 1999 (in fact a German translation appeared in 1950, a French translation in 1958, reissued in 1995); that when the Communists took over in Hungary “every single copy of his books was destroyed” (on the contrary, stocks were exported for sale in the West, and the hard currency was repatriated).

Whether the popular success of Embers in Europe will be repeated in the United States remains to be seen. One would hope that new readers will ignore the hype and accept Márai for what—on the basis of the limited knowledge we have of him outside Hungary—he appears to be: a minor, rather old-fashioned fiction writer, a thoughtful chronicler of the dark decade of the 1940s, and a courageous spokesman for a vanishing social class.

This Issue

December 20, 2001