This edition of Portraits of a Marriage by Sandor Marai (sorry about the missing accent marks) was originally published in Hungarian in 2003. The translation copyright for this current edition was issued in 2011 to Alfred A. Knopf. Although the book takes a more formal style than the literary forms we most often encounter these days, the subject of the book, marriage, is obviously universal.
Peter, had two wives (not simultaneously), his first wife Ilonka and his second wife, Judit. The book has four parts. In the first part Ilonka discusses her marriage to Peter. In the second part Peter discusses his marriages to both Judit and Ilonka and in the 3rd part, Judit explains her marriage with Peter to her new lover in Rome and she also discusses several other relationships with men. In Part 4, the Epilogue, Judit’s lover meets Peter in New York City, although Peter’s name is not mentioned and the (also unnamed) lover does not know who Peter is as he discusses his life before and after World War II. Judit comes up in the conversation but is only referred to as “Sweetheart.” In this section, besides the irony of coincidence, we get a picture of Budapest when the Russians have just taken over.
Throughout the story, as we dissect these two marriages we also have the contrast of the relatively normal years before World War II and before Hitler invades Hungary; we have descriptions of what life was like for people in Budapest during World War II; we have a description of the short sweet anarchy following the war; and we have the beginning of the occupation of Hungary by the Communists after the war and just before the Iron Curtain locks Hungary away. Budapest is as much a character in this novel as any of the people. Life in Budapest changed forever. By the time it emerged from behind the Iron Curtain there were no longer any people like Peter in Budapest. This novel becomes a portrait of a lifestyle that is just a memory.
This is, and isn’t, a love story because, although there are two marriages, in each marriage there is very little passion. There is some sexual attraction and the hope of love prior to each marriage, but passion is missing from both soon after consummation. Peter’s family is wealthy and “middle class”. His upbringing and his manner, and his very beliefs about culture keep him quite detached from any emotional entanglements. His life shields him from connection to others.
There is a lot more to experience in this book, but it does read more like a modern classic, than a modern novel. Perhaps it is just very European. It is the kind of book that tempts you to get out your highlighter so you can mark certain passages for quotation. It’s a very literary and sophisticated book, and while it is a time capsule from wartime Budapest, it is, perhaps, not for everyone.
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