'Doomed love cannot die.'
I certainly caught the Sándor-Máraitis (and if you knew how long it took me to get those fiddly diddly things over the 'a' you'd be worried for me) that was doing the rounds when Embers first hit the shelves, and now I see that was all of five years ago, seems like yesterday, but this was when literature in translation was starting to appeal to me. Sándor Márai one of Hungary's leading literary novelists of the 1930s, survived the war but communist persecution forced him into exile, first in Italy and then the United States where he eventually committed suicide in 1989.
Somehow post-Embers I'd then missed anything else by Sándor Márai until the arrival of Esther's Inheritance published by Picador.
If I were to try and compare the two, which is dodgy after a five year gap, I'd wonder whether Esther's Inheritance might be a subtle re-working of the themes in Embers. The meeting of old adversaries after many years, shattered lives, betrayals, old passions and for sure they are all there, but this time from the point of view of a female narrator.
Esther lives with old and loyal family friend Nunu on the brink of hardship and nursing a loss that has its origins some twenty years before, when the love of her life Lajos quite suddenly and inexplicably seemed to transfer his affections and married her sister Vilma.
Lajos a man who lacks a moral compass, a con man whose power resides in his complete lack of conscience and seeming detachment from his own emotions, and one who has subsequently stripped the family of their assets. I think we might even cast him as a sociopath these days,
'His charm acted on us like a cheap, wicked spell...my experience of Lajos is that he is the kind of man who begins with lies but then in the middle of his lying grows passionate and weeps, going on to lie more, this time with tears in his eyes...'
Vilma's death occasions an unexpected request to visit the family home from Lajos and everyone gathers and prepares for the event. They have no illusions about him and Esther prepares her emotional defences to repel whatever demands Lajos might make. No one thinks for one minute that this fly-by-night has any other motive but money.
What follows is one of those reads that had me initially whispering at the page and eventually shouting DON'T SIGN IT... as Lajos, with all the guile of the con man that he is, makes his demands. Esther's final decision pitted against what this reader wanted to happen, and it all became a bit of a battle royal as I turned the pages. In fact it all left me quite shattered as even I, albeit unwillingly, slowly started to understand Sándor Márai's 'moral cripple',
'To be properly creative one needs something else...some special strength or discipline or a mixture of the two; the stuff, I think, they call character...And that quality, that talent, is something that is missing in me. It's like a strange deafness. It is as if I knew the music, the tune being played, precisely, but could not hear the notes.'
It's all mighty quietly powerful stuff and as I emerged licking my wounds I had good cause to reflect on the subtle cleverness of a book that teaches you one of life's useful lessons.
How easy it is to judge a situation from a single perspective, from one side of a story, perhaps decide how someone should sort out a problem (kick him where it hurts Esther) and say so, but walk a mile in their shoes first (doomed love can never die) and then try and say it, and somehow it's not quite so easy.
Sándor Márai gives Esther a voice with which to make her own decisions and then to explain them on her own terms, transforming this from a book that could have been about bitter revenge and retribution into one about the power of thwarted love and an achingly resigned forgiveness, tinged with regrets.
Humiliation it seems can go either way and books like this could probably stop wars.
I was a wrung out dishcloth by the end and you too can be likewise, three prize draw copies of Esther's Inheritance by Sándor Márai and a great read for the lucky winners, names in comments and Rocky will stir his paws and choose.