The Wisdom of Equanimity
One of the most distinctive aspects of Sandor Marai's style is his capacity to stretch out a piece of narrative that might usually only receive a few paragraphs, and turn it into a short chapter, which is in itself an extension of the narrative form he adopts: an incident expanded into novel or novella form. In Conversations in Bolzano the novel takes place when the central character Casanova returns to the town of Bolzano where he once fought a duel over a woman. In Embers two men meet again for the first time in over forty years after one has betrayed the other. In Esther's Inheritance, a man the titular character loved many years before returns to the place where she has lived since he left. Each book is in essence a conversation piece, an opportunity to access memory through revelation, but it is on Esther's Inheritance that we shall focus.
The opening chapter is little more than a page long and opens with the narrator explaining that it was three years since "Lajos visited me for the last time and robbed me." Lajos is the man that she loved but who married the sister instead, a sister with whom she never got on, and who died a few years into the marriage. "My sister Vilma hated me. Eva [Lajos and Vilma's daughter] was right, there had been bad blood between us for as long as I can remember, a nameless dark fury the reasons for which had disappeared over the years." "Nothing can explain this mutual hatred - for the fact is that I hated her as much as she did me - nor did either of us ever seek to explain it." But late in the novel, Lajos insists that it was Esther whom he really loved. "All my life I have loved only you." Lajos says when they meet again after all the years apart, "not out of some strict necessity, nor quite according to the laws of logic." He believes Esther didn't "really welcome love. Don't deny it! It is not enough to love somebody, you must love courageously. You must love so that no thief or plan or law, whether that be the law of heaven or of the world, can come between." He says "the problem was that we did not love courageously enough." Is he telling the truth? After all, Lajos is a man one never trusts. "How low will you sink?" Esther says. "I imagine everyone has a kind of gauge, a spirit level that determines what is good and bad within them. It's universal, everything has a limit, everything that is to do with human relationships. But you have no gauge."
"Mere words", Lajos replies, but like Marai's Conversations in Bolzano and Embers, the book is all 'words', as Marai refuses action for the undecidability of memory, the doubts that come out of it, and the arguments discussed in its name. In the first chapter Esther writes, "Maybe time, which has not spared me, maybe memory, which is almost as ruthless as time, maybe some peculiar grace that, as my faith teaches, is sometimes granted the undeserving and the wilful, maybe simply experience and old age enable me now to gaze on death with equanimity." At the beginning of chapter 13 Esther says "there are three conversations I should note here. That was precisely how many took place that afternoon."
Now the exchange that we briefly quoted a little earlier where Lajos believes that Esther did not love courageously enough is an interesting example of the beseeching scene we often expect desperate lovers to make after their loved one has decided to end it and move on. Yet this is not the recent past that Lajos is accessing, but deep memory. This is not simply the immediate past of a relationship that he is trying to rewrite for his own ends, but those of a man Esther has not seen for twenty years. He is saying to her that the last two decades have been a mistake. Yet this error for Lajos has been a tragedy for Esther. While he went off and married her sister and, after she died, presumably had numerous emotional encounters and adventures, Esther has been living with the pain ever since his parting. "There are wounds time does not heal. I knew that I myself was not healed. Only a few years after our "separation" - it is very difficult to find the right word for what happened between Lajos and me - the unbearable suddenly became natural, simple." It is one thing to suffer an unbearable pain for a few months after a break-up only for the love of one's life to come back and try to see the past differently, but in Esther's Inheritancethat past is so far back that it makes a tragedy of her twenty years of suffering if he is telling the truth; a horrible affirmation of her distrust towards him if he is lying.
However, it is not just Lajos who tries to convince her that she was the love of his life, but also Eva. "You were the only woman who had any power over Father. You were the only woman he ever loved. No, Esther, that much I know, at least as well as you and Father." When Eva says "No, Esther" it is as if she expects to be interrupted, that Esther could not countenance the notion. When Lajos and Eva fight to convince Esther that Esther was the person Lajos loved the most, there is understandably a resistance to this in Esther as she is expected to reinterpret the person that she has dismissed as a liar and a cheat. That might be readily possible if someone has recently parted from the person and there have been misunderstandings, but not so easy if many years have gone by and one has constructed an identity in opposition to their loved one from the past.
Esther has spent two decades assuming that she has been the wronged woman; someone who can at least hold a moral high ground that might allow her the spiritual - the very spiritual she perhaps attains at the beginning of the book as she looks back over her life and that last meeting when Lajos persuaded her to take the one thing left of hers: the house. As she says at the end of chapter 1, "I did all I could to escape it. But my foe pursued me. Now I know he could do nothing about it: we are bound to our enemies, nor can they escape us." All that she can now do is write it down. "Now I feel an irresistible voice urging me on, insisting I should record the events of that day - and everything I know about Lajos - because it is my duty to do so and because I don't have much time. There's no mistaking such a voice. That is why I obey it, in God's name." But when Lajos returns he tries to take her back to the physical, away from her own moral certainties, and even uses her moral worth as part of his argument for their love. "It was you: you were what I was missing, you were my character, my being. A man without character, an imperfect character, is morally something of a cripple. There are people like that, people who in every other respect are perfectly normal but for a missing arm or leg. Such people are given prosthesis, an artificial arm or leg, and suddenly they are capable of working again, of being useful."
But of course rather than elevating Lajos it drags Esther down, so that instead of a love achieving spiritual grace, it can only become a love lost in worldly inadequacy. Perhaps only God will be able to protect someone like Esther from a man such as Lajos. It is maybe where the head and the heart become irrelevant next to a higher value. Esther may try and hold to her reasoning when Lajos returns, but how successful is she when the heart starts to palpitate again? During the discussion where he insists she is a moral being whilst he is on "issues of morality, practically illiterate", Esther responds to his insistence that this is why he needs to be with her by obstinately insisting she doesn't believe him. "I have had enough of being the model for a false view of the world all my life." As she says she doesn't believe in Lajos's ideas but in reality, by the end of the book that reality doesn't hold as she is persuaded once again to give Lajos what he wants.
Yet would faith in a higher being make any difference, taking into account a couple of comments a character makes in Embers, where a betrayed man's pain tries to find meaning and purpose in solitude? "But it's easy for a real monk, because he has his belief. A man who has signed away his soul and his fate to solitude is incapable of faith. He can only wait. For the day or the hour when he can talk about everything that forced him into solitude with the man or men who forced him into that condition." Later in Embers, the same character says "self-respect is the irreplaceable foundation of our humanity; wound it, and the hurt, the damage, is so scalding that not even death can ease the torture." Has Esther lost her self-respect in relation to Lajos? We might think yes and no. Yes, if we assume that she has simply lost her head again over Lajos, but perhaps not if what she does she does lucidly aware that Lajos is someone who must be who he is - selfish, greedy and deceitful - but that she must be who she is - generous, honest and caring. When Eva says there are letters in a drawer in the house written years before, declaring that Esther was the love of Lajos' life, she doesn't read them before making the decision to sign the house over to Lajos. It is as though she doesn't need to be persuaded of Lajos's love; more that she needs to recognise her own character. From such a perspective Lajos doesn't win Esther over again; more that he plays out his personality and she plays out hers. As she says to her friend and advisor Endre, "If I had been truly wise and honest twenty years ago I would have eloped from here with Lajos, my sister's fianc, Lajos the swindler, the notorious liar, that piece of human garbage." If she had done so she would have at least "obeyed a law and fulfilled an obligation that is stronger than the laws of reason and the world generally..."
Is this the central problematic at work in Marai's novella: the problem of being true to one's own nature even if it is detrimental to one's happiness? Esther's nature is to be as generous as Lajos's is to be selfish, so it is as though by the end of the book she is not fighting against herself by being persuaded by Lajos's flattery and attention, his beseeching tone and his apparently changed ways. No, it is more that she can readily acknowledge his failings as she can recognize her own qualities. "But the house and garden", she says to Endre, "I have given it all to him. I have signed this piece of paper...and I ask you, Endre, to talk to him and persuade him to look after Nunu [the housekeeper]. That is the one thing he must promise to do. You are right, of course, his promise is not worth anything, so this must be arranged in a proper legal manner."
This is not the deluded action of a besotted woman, but one who is as aware of her own personality as she is aware of Lajos's. Now, this indicates that the issue isn't especially that Esther succumbs to Lajos; rather that she is being true to herself, and the truth of herself is that she wants to give everything to him, just as the truth of Lajos is that he wants to take everything he can. What is important to realise is that Esther is not fooled by Lajos (and perhaps never has been), but that she is at her most existent in his company. "There are times I think you're an absolute genius... the genius of lies. You look into my eyes or touch me, your tears welling, and I start to feel how your hand trembles, but all the time I know you are lying, that you have always lied, right from the first moment." But as Lajos says elsewhere, "I wanted you to know...that people can't end something before it has run its course. It is impossible!" Lajos adds "You are part of me, even now, when time and distance have annihilated all we once had together...Do you understand yet? You are responsible for everything that has happened in my life, just as I - in my fashion, in a man's fashion - am responsible for you, for your life." This might be a horrible symbiosis of an ethically mismatched couple, but it is perhaps a match nevertheless. When Lajos offers his comment about being morally something of a cripple, and that Esther was like a moral prosthesis, he might be trying to get his own way, but he also has a point.
Here we can draw together the two initial issues we raised: Marai's interest in the slow burn chapter, and his fascination with conversation. Often in the writer's work a conversation will be an entire chapter, sometimes a conversation will pass over several. For example, in Embers the conversation between the general and his old friend covers many chapters, while the main discussion between Lajos and Esther in Esther's Inheritance covers three. In Esther's Inheritance, the point isn't that Lajos will persuade Esther that they were the love of each other's lives, more that Lajos will reveal his mode of loving and Esther will reveal hers. It is similar to the conversation between the general and the friend who betrayed him in Embers. "Evidently there is no external power that can alter human relationships. You killed something inside me, you ruined my life, but we are still friends. And tonight, I am going to kill something inside you, and then I shall let you go back to London or to the tropics or to hell, and yet still you will be my friend." Nothing changes but modes are expressed; and the lengthy conversations are the means with which to express oneself much more than to change someone's mind, even if, ostensibly, that is what someone is trying to do. At the back of Embers a critic says it "works beautifully as a novel of suspense...whose denouement is as exciting as a detective tale." Yet this is the internal suspense of characters revealing their thoughts and feelings to another, not the dramatic suspense of change and/or violence. "Finally, the world is irrelevant. All that counts is what remains in our hearts," the general says in Embers, as if all one can hope to do is express what is in the centre of oneself. This is the suspense Marai seeks out, and finds a reflective, conversational form in which to do so.
© Tony McKibbin