"There is no pain like the pain of knowing you love someone but cannot live with them." This line is found on page 17 of Sándor Márai's rediscovered, newly-translated novel, Portraits of a Marriage, but its frankness and simplicity is so powerful in its emotional truth that Márai, had he opened the book with it, may have written an entirely different novel altogether; its stunning impact worthy to be placed alongside other iconic first lines such as: "The past is a different country, they do things differently there," from L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between.
The Hungarian novelist, famous in his native land and who later committed suicide at 89 in San Diego where he lived for many years, has had one of the most enthusiastically-received posthumous careers in recent years, consistently making the bestseller list, all thanks mainly to Alfred A. Knopf who, for the past decade, has devotedly churned out five beloved Márai novels that, once translated into English, put the long-forgotten writer back on the map with his evocative tales of longing and loneliness, unrequited love and immeasurable loss that in their brilliance and breathtaking originality surpass, in scope and magnitude, the novels of that other Astro-Hungarian writer of mad genius who also took his own life, Stefan Zweig.
Márai's Portraits of a Marriage is a searing, intense, thought-provoking dissection of a disastrous marriage told in the distinctly different voices of three protagonists: the man, the woman, and the other woman, with an additional person, an unnamed man, who concludes the story through his own point of view. Peter, who leads an enviable life—fancy car and house, servants, every comfort money could buy—with his adoring wife, Ilonka, in pre-WWI Budapest, has had it with marriage, but who is reluctant to get out of it because of one significant hindrance: a child, the product of this seemingly charmed and ideal union, and whose tragic early death shatters Peter's world and, inevitably, his marriage. Enter the "other woman," Judit, whom Peter marries and eventually divorces. The plot, more or less, ends here. All of the three characters are then given substantial time to vent their innermost feelings, feelings that have been festering inside for years and are freed at last. Painstakingly, these anguished souls reconstruct, reconfigure and revise their fractured lives with unflinching candor, and here is where the novelist's genius is fully revealed. Even though Márai is never subtle when giving voice to his characters, he is an extremely generous writer, often sacrificing subtlety in lieu of powerfully concocted prose. If a thought suddenly enters his mind, he not only writes it down but offers a mini dissertation on the matter, sounding, in most pages, like a Baptist minister who preaches, rather emphatically, that "To love is to know joy as completely as it can be known and then to perish," and that "True love is always fatal. . . it burns with a fierce, more dangerous flame."
The urgent, dashed-off, in-the-heat-of-the-moment tone of the prose has the texture and bleak atmosphere of an Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes movie. The conversational, idiosyncratic narrative style is highly effective for a novel that reads like a transcript of an hours-long therapy session where the patient is doing all of the talking and the shrink is virtually mute. The pacing is unconventional: past, present and future are blurred beyond recognition, colliding into each other as in dreams. The dialogue—or, rather, the monologue spoken by the characters as they seem to be talking to an invisible friend and in fact are—are inlaid into the abstract structure of the narrative, piece by piece, like ornate Byzantine mosaics, gleaming with the shine of age-old wisdom: "Let's forget loneliness. Let it go. It may be no more than illusion," one character suggests wearily; while another troubled soul asserts that love is not "a great help to anyone. . . now here, now gone." Márai's clear-eyed, uncompromising insights into the intricately tangled web that is human love teach rather than preach, enlighten rather than condemn. In one particularly memorable episode, a character pours out her heart to a priest in what can be considered the novel's epitaph, the voice of the priest shining forth with conviction, like the gilded altar of the ancient cathedral itself where the confession takes place: "God gave people love so they might bear the world and each other."
At the end of this uncomplicated yet complex, brazenly modern (it was originally published in Hungary seventy years ago) novel, all three characters (along with the reader) will ultimately ask themselves if love, in all its myriad disguises and possibilities, "might prove. . . eternal"—can it "dissolve the distance between two people."? In an appalling age where "lovers make love in a hurry, like children gobbling their food," where love easily succumbs to hate, where it is seldom reciprocated, and where very few people would take the trouble to "strain every muscle and nerve to love"—can love exist, survive or grow at all? Márai, in this exceptionally wise novel, does not give clichéd answers and then tie them all up with a pretty bow; instead, he offers hope: "some hope at the bottom of my heart, that there would be a body, one single, unique body, that would move in perfect harmony with mine, that would succeed in quenching the thirst of desire. . . that people generally refer to as happiness."