Being a Hungarian in the 20th century wasn’t much fun, and being a Hungarian writer was even worse: suicide, insanity, poverty, exile, disgrace and death in the Holocaust were the stock endings.
Sandor Marai (1900-89) stands out not only for his writing but for his backbone, since hardly any other major Hungarian writer of the period comes through without some political embarassment. Marai was one of the first to condemn Hitler (although, interestingly, his work appeared in Germany even during the war), and he would have nothing to do with the Communists (he was savagely attacked by the Marxist critic Georg Lukacs), arguing for a bourgeois decency that has only recently become fashionable again. Marai left Hungary in 1948, never to return. His subsequent works were published by émigré presses (in London, Toronto and Munich) in print runs of a thousand or so.
The Marai industry started slowly in Hungary in 1990, with the republication of the book then considered his masterpiece, “Confessions of a Bourgeois.” Marai’s readership at that time comprised the elderly, who recalled him from his success in the 1940s; several academics who had the courage to keep an eye on banned writers; and some of the Hungarian dissidents who had found in Marai a congenial companion. But it was thanks mainly to the Italian publisher Roberto Calasso that Marai became a star in Europe (as well as a widely praised writer in the United States) with the novel “Embers” — even though it was rated by Marai, and many other Hungarians, as one of his lesser works.
Marai’s first story was published when he was 15, and he kept scribbling up to his death at the age of 88. More than 60 volumes appeared in his lifetime. No Hungarian writer has benefited more from the collapse of Communism. Most bookshops in Budapest now boast a Marai section, and not even the Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz has as many titles in print. When “Embers” was published in Britain the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, flew over for the event, a governmental blessing most writers can only dream of.
Poet, journalist, dramatist, translator, novelist and essayist, Marai worked in just about every literary form, but for Hungarians it’s probably the diaries that excite the greatest admiration; written in a bare prose, they offer a merciless examination of himself and his era. He loved his native language, and stuck with it in exile (he could easily have switched to German) although he was well aware this decision ensured indigence and obscurity. His relations with his fellow Hungarians, however, were not very smooth. Insanely principled, he found himself isolated even within émigré circles.
Shortly before he committed suicide in San Diego in 1989, Marai oversaw the publication of “The Garrens’ Work: A Novel in Two Volumes.” This was what he judged his magnum opus, the story of the Garren family from his hometown, Kassa (now Kosice, in Slovakia).
However you care to break up the activities of the Garrens (various chunks appeared in various editions over the years), “The Rebels” is the opening installment of the saga. It was first published in 1930 as a stand-alone work. Many of Marai’s novels are tweaked memoirs or (like his previous novel to appear in English, “Casanova in Bolzano”) heavy on philosophical reflection. But this one fires on all narrative cylinders.
Abel, Tibor, Erno and Bela are finishing school. Their gang gets up to the pranks and petty crime adored by male adolescents everywhere. What might have been a slight account of evanescence, a kind of precursor to “American Graffitti,” is beefed up by the date of the boys’ graduation: 1918. They will join their elder brothers and fathers at the front; for them, the adult world is not merely confusing and hypocritical, it’s fatal.
“Please be so gracious as to remember that the last days are here,” announces Erno’s father, a cobbler and hangman. Doom pervades “The Rebels,” which takes place during the final blast of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a realm of high culture and ferocious propriety, where you starved to death if you didn’t have money and “stoical obligatory manliness” forced you to shuffle off to war.
“Embers,” written a decade later, was a nostalgic evocation of Franz Joseph’s waltzing Vienna, whereas “The Rebels” shows a provincial city largely insulated from the war but full of its own combat and morally mutilated individuals. The main battle here is between the young and the old, but even the gang of adolescents won’t make it to the end of the book.
Marai wrote only a handful of plays, but he injected a strong theatricality into many of his novels. His characters tend to be either laconic or torrentially talkative. Costume and pretense fascinated him, and the boys of “The Rebels” stage an impromptu private performance in the city’s theater under the guidance of a sinister, itinerant actor, an evening that will cost them dear.
The distinguished poet George Szirtes has translated Marai gracefully. Marai’s style, especially in his later works, is extremely clear and spare (there’s an almost Balzacian inventory of Abel’s household here, something you won’t find again). But the clarity is deceptive. You read a sentence and then 10 minutes later you find yourself thinking, What did he really mean by that? You’ll be wondering about “The Rebels” a long time after you’ve put it down.