Hungarian literature lacks the emigrant traditions usually associated with the literatures of Russia, Poland, or Germany of the Nazi era, for instance. Once a writer left Hungary, connection with the Hungarian language and the Hungarian public was broken and the separation prevented the writer from creating great and valid works. This is why most of the significant writers chose not to leave the country; they would rather compromise with the prevailing political system, which, since the end of World War I, ruled the country in some form of unbearable dictatorship – be it fascist or communist. Writers would often endure imprisonment rather than uproot themselves from the source - the language and the intellectual life based on that language – of their creative output. This compromise evidently left such profound traces on the life work of most emigrant writers as to deny them the opportunity to serve as ambassadors of Hungarian literature and philosophy abroad.
The international success of Kertész and Márai is a conspicuous exception, because it highlights the experience of exile from without, of deep despair, and of the spiritual depth of the literature of a country that is known for being closed up inside itself. This introversion is a factor not only of its peculiar language but also of a society that retains certain feudal characteristics.
Imre Kertész has written his life's work in an inner exile in Hungary, far from the literary life of the country; Sándor Márai spent most of his life abroad, suffering from the lack of communication in his mother tongue, as he considered moral stance and spiritual freedom more important than his career as a writer.
Imre Kertész has written only one essay about a writer, and that writer was none other than Sándor Márai. And in his Galley Diary (a book that ought to be translated into Hebrew, for it is an extraordinary document of the experience of the Holocaust and Auschwitz, and of Kertész's unique thoughts on his Jewish identity), Kertész is interested mainly in Márai, much more so than any other Hungarian author. Through the person of Márai, he asks how he, Kertész, can maintain his spiritual independence, which is the key to his own Job story?
In Kertész's essay on Márai, “Confessions of a Bourgeois,” he writes:
“In our age, exile has turned, with lightning speed, from a question of survival into a question of spirituality and ethics. A totalitarian state would mark its subject with its shameful stamp even if that subject had stayed away from public life, wanting to preserve his integral humanity in the protection of anonymity. The essence of a totalitarian regime is that it is totally oppressive, forcing one to relentless resistance or conformity: it totally expropriates thinking; like unexpected catastrophes, it jolts one out of one's personal existence and offers up nightmare-like alternatives from which it coerces us to choose. Thus, the individual also steps into the nightmare, and he, too, becomes an incubus, carrying out dreamlike actions for which in normal circumstances he would not take - often would not even feel - responsibility.”
Kertész concludes his essay with an exceptionally sharp and enlightening story, as if attempting with the help of a specific memory to link his fate with Márai's - a linkage that has been realized on an intellectual level.
In Galley Diary, Kertész quotes from Márai's diary: “Márai's diary, the pages from 1944: ‘On July 3, the air attack begins at 9:30 in the morning; it's the most serious one so far.'” “I remember this attack exactly,” continues Kertész. “To me, this 9:30 in the morning in the brick factory of Budakalász, which had been turned into a ghetto, seemed like the middle of the day (maybe because of my continuous hunger). A few of us climbed up on a small rise along the fence, from the relative height of the little mound of earth to observe what was happening in the distance. This is what happened, as described by Márai, ‘… On the way, the train passes along the brickworks of Budakalász. Between the brick-drying sheds, 7,000 Jews from Pest and its vicinity are waiting to be deported. Standing on the embankments are soldiers with machine guns…' “I cannot tell why I was seized, belatedly, by such a moving, grateful joy that Sándor Márai saw me there. He was 44 years old, I was 14. He saw the child with the yellow star among the brick-drying sheds; and he knew what the child did not know then, that soon he would be taken to Auschwitz. And he put this down in his diary - what else can a writer do? And this diary, by the way, is the era's purest, most comprehensive and most important intellectual record.”
Journey to Jewish Palestine
Who is this Sándor Márai, and what else should be know about him and learn from him?
What I am about to say may be perplexing: the reader would do well to become better acquainted not with Márai, author of Embers, but Márai, the diarist and traveler. In fact, Sándor Márai's first real book, published in 1927, was a travelogue.
The dual heroes of the book, of course, are the intellectual figure of Sándor Márai, and the West: Márai, who wanted to be away from Europe, attracted by the charm of another place, and who hoped to gain salvation; and the West, that is to say Europe. He presents the problematic contrasts between East and West: What could be adopted from one side that might be constructive for the other? What would have to remain as insoluble contradiction? What will forever remain destructive?
The record of a journey that, with its strong oriental attraction, had determined Márai's life and it shaped his style and ways of seeing things. The journey took place in the Middle East in 1927. As the correspondent of a German newspaper, Márai sailed from Marseille to Alexandria and then through Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, and Turkey before making his way back to Europe.
His book is a great document of life in the early years of the Jewish settlement in Palestine, the pioneering movement, the work of the institutions preparing the Zionist state, and of the already perceptible Arab-Jewish tensions. It was here that Márai the sharp-eyed reporter and circumspect observer became a true writer, because he not only recorded what he saw, but also comprehended the ideas and philosophies behind the evolution of the new Middle East. The book holds our interest because the descriptions of those early times already embody conflicts, as well. Not the political conflicts, but the ideological conflicts of the Jews, who were slowly and energetically populating the land of Palestine, their dreams, their unusual relationships with the Jews of the Diaspora and with their Arab neighbors.
Many books and memoirs have been written since then about these events and conflicts - and the subject is still popular today. Márai's book is unique because it is the book of a confessed outsider. And his insight into this peculiar world is so profound because what he is searching for is not Jewish fate, or Jewish man, or a nostalgia for the Holy Land, but for himself - while traveling through the Middle East. He is looking for that European intellectual and citizen for whom the supply of ideals and values he had believed to be eternal had run out. What should be his fate, his guiding star?
The subjects of his reports are real characters; they are the founders of Israel, people from the culture of Europe attempting to create another ideal and identity in the East. The dual heroes of the book, of course, are the intellectual figure of Sándor Márai, and the West: Márai, who wanted to be away from Europe, attracted by the charm of another place, and who hoped to gain salvation; and the West, that is to say Europe. He presents the problematic contrasts between East and West: What could be adopted from one side that might be constructive for the other? What would have to remain as insoluble contradiction? What will forever remain destructive?
The recognition of this duality will later help Márai analyze the situation in which his homeland, Hungary, found itself after World War II. Márai spends the period in 1945 during which the Red Army liberates and occupies Hungary in a village not far from Budapest. In one of his best books, Earth, Earth, Earth, he scrutinizes the behavior and character of the occupying soldiers; he sees the mentality of the Eastern men (he considered the Russians Easterners) as the Eastern culture's mentality that deviates from that of the West. He depicts the transition from fascist to communist dictatorship, between 1944 and 1948, as the inappeasable contrast between East and West.
Sándor Márai was born in 1900 in Kassa (today Kosice, in Slovakia). His family name was Grosschmid. No, he was not Jewish - or perhaps he was, in a certain sense. In the sense that he was a citizen, or to be a bit more precise, a burgher or bourgeois, which was nearly the exclusive status of the Jews in Hungary, a country that had been so late in shedding its feudal traits (in my view it has not shed them all, to this very day.) However, there are cities in Slovakia where German communities have
Kertész: I cannot tell why I was seized, belatedly, by such a moving, grateful joy that Sándor Márai saw me there. He was 44 years old, I was 14. He saw the child with the yellow star among the brick-drying sheds; and he knew what the child did not know then, that soon he would be taken to Auschwitz
existed since the Middle Ages. To this day, they have preserved their language and culture - a German culture that was also one form of early city bourgeoisie. (It is enough to take a look at the architecture of Slovakian or Transylvanian cities and compare it to that of German cities to see the similarity. Incidentally, Budapest was also such a city, especially Buda, where until the beginning of the 20th century, Hungarian was barely spoken.) This German culture, not only in its language but also its arts and education and intellectual spirit, was different, more developed, and, of course, more Western than Hungarian culture. This dissimilarity in spirit and education are characteristic of the other Hungarian bourgeois element: the Jews.
Márai came from what is known in Hungarian as a patrician family. He is the only significant non-Jewish bourgeois writer. (Hungarian literature is full of writers of German origin who assimilated into Hungarian culture, just as a large share of Jewish writers, or writers of Jewish extraction, adopted an assimilationist attitude. An interesting example of an assimilated German artist is Ferenc Erkel, who established Hungary's musical culture; he was the composer of Hungarian nationalist operas, as well as the national anthem.)
Like the Jews in Kassa, Márai grew up in a multilingual atmosphere where German, Slovakian and Hungarian were all spoken. He was not quite twenty when, in 1919, to avoid the fascist “white terror” in Hungary, he emigrated. He lived in Prague, Leipzig, Frankfurt, and then in Paris. He wrote for German and later for Hungarian newspapers; in his early years he published two books in German, in Vienna and Berlin. He was the first to write in Hungarian of Franz Kafka's significance, and also translated two of Kafka's short stories. Only in 1930 did he settle down in Hungary, after having decided that he wanted to be a Hungarian and not a German writer. Before long, he became a successful and prolific author and playwright. He established his fame not with a novel but with an autobiographical piece, Confessions of a Bourgeois. It remains his best and most enduring work.
The greatest, most successful undertakings are based on the simplest ideas and structures. What Márai did was to embark on a journey to and around his family and, what was practically the same thing, his own social stratum. He described the history of his family's origin, lifestyle, value system, education, network of connections (including those with two Jewish families, one Orthodox and one Reform, that lived in their building), daily routines, and within this framework, his own development, his own breaking away from a world that defined him to the end of his life. It is this detailed observation, the almost scientific description of social background, that is most enjoyable in Embers; the razor-sharp precision that includes everything, which is the author's style. What is solved in the novel by long dialogues (in my view, not always successfully), appears in the travelogue in much livelier form, with constant responses, thoughts, and reflections - in the form of an essay or philosophy, or only an aphorism - on everything he had so keenly observed.
Márai continued to keep a diary throughout his life. From time to time, he would collect the entries, sift through them, and shape them into a volume. Aside from Confessions of a Bourgeois, perhaps his most interesting is the aforementioned Earth, Earth, Earth. In it, he recorded not only events but two great dramas, and not with dramatic means but in the diary form that is his hallmark: the tragicomedy of transition from fascism to communism (which includes one or two sharp, mocking, but unfortunately very true sketches of Jewish communists), and his own inner drama, in which he decided to leave Hungary, which also meant leaving the language that nourished his art, the literary life, the readers and the critics; in brief, the milieu that is indispensable to a writer's existence. It was a painful decision, and throughout his life he continued to doubt whether it had been the right one. From 1948 to 1952, he lived in Switzerland and Italy, and then moved to New York; in 1957 he took on American citizenship. Beginning in the 1960s, he spent close to a decade in Italy, and in 1979 settled down in San Diego, California, where he lived until February 21, 1989, when he committed suicide. During this period, he wrote many novels and plays, although most of his literary energies were spent on the diary he kept.
After the death of his beloved wife Lola (who was Jewish), with whom he had lived in wonderful harmony for 63 years, and whom he faithfully cared for during her long illness, and after the death of his adopted son, Márai saw no sense in entering his ninth decade alone. The timing of his death was tragic, because for Hungary, and all of Eastern Europe, 1989 was the year of regime change, and as part of the preparations for this change, Márai received an invitation from the Hungarian cultural authorities to return home. He was assured that all of his works would be published, that he would be reinstated as a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters, and that his arrival would be widely celebrated. In his response, he stated that he refused to consider such an offer so long as Russian troops remained on Hungarian soil. The Russians withdrew a year later.
But it may be more logical to assume that Márai felt or rather knew that after so much suffering and so long an absence, in his delicate physical condition he would not be able to readjust to the world from which he had so painfully torn himself away, and return to a bourgeois Hungary that had lived on only in his memories and works. He believed, as he wrote in his notes, that for a long time his life had been superfluous, that he had lived far beyond his given quota. And he drew his own conclusions.
As an example of Márai's unique way of seeing the world and his sensitivity to human suffering, I conclude with a few lines from his 1944 diary.
“There is no help for it; everything we want to understand must be lived personally, with our own flesh, in reality. Everything we have heard of the fate of Polish, Austrian, and German Jews this year is but a foggy image. But when I first saw - on Vörösmarty Square - two Gestapo soldiers taking a man toward a truck, I understood reality. And now, as these men, women, and children with their yellow stars are marching past the window, carrying their miserable baggage, to live, crowded by the thousands, on the way to some uncertain - and I am afraid not so uncertain - fate, as they are leaving their homes, their work - why? – to linger in shacks and barracks at the edge of the city, with food only for two weeks, without money, without a chance for a livelihood - why?! - now, finally I understand. All this must be seen personally. The human soul has no true imagination. Only reality does. It is a shame to live. To be in the sunshine is a shame. It is a shame to live.”
“God, give strength to the Jews so they might bear their persecution, torture, and inflictions. Give them strength, to be strong enough for life and for death. And then, when they have survived the persecutions, give them strength that they may not lose their heads and become like those who now persecute them. Give them strength for human greatness and tolerance. For revenge only breeds further ill will. Maybe Huxley and his Oxford colleagues are right when they claim that the enemy can be defeated only by one means: by forbearance.”
János Kőbányai is the editor of the Jewish-Hungarian journal “Múlt és Jövő” (Past and Future)