There is a point early on in Sandor Marai's Portraits of a Marriage — a 1941 novel that is just now back in print — when our narrator, a middle-class woman who has married into the vanishing Hungarian bourgeoisie, realizes that she has lost her husband to an invisible rival. The smoking gun is a lilac ribbon in his wallet. With the singular focus of a lover scorned, Ilonka vows to reclaim her marriage. But as she explains years later to a friend in a Budapest cafe (while across the room, her now-ex-husband, Peter, buys a candied orange peel for his new wife), her relationship was suffering from emotional absentia long before she discovered the infidelity.
"He loved me, no question about that," she says. "But at the same time it was as if he were merely tolerating me in his house, in his very life."
Neither Ilonka nor her polite bourgeois marriage is around for much longer; the second section of the book cuts to Peter, long divorced, as he watches his former mistress step into a car with somebody else.
Born in the eastern city of Kassa — now located in Slovakia — at the turn of the 20th century, Marai rose to prominence in the 1930s as a literary novelist and critic of fascism. Commonly described as interwar Hungary's great middle-class writer, Marai fled to the U.S. during the ascent of communism, and since his suicide in 1989, his work has enjoyed a mini-renaissance outside of his homeland. Four of his novels have been translated into English over the past 10 years, and Portraits guarantees that more are in the offing.
Set in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a period when "the whole world was a garden at the point of turning," Marai's novel expresses cultural decline through the dissolution of marriage, shifting between Ilonka, Peter and Judit Aldozo — the ribbon's original owner. As one couple gives way to another, stoic 19th century social mores experience their final shudders in the bedroom.
Writing in a strikingly modern tone, Marai allows his characters the luxury of hindsight and intercontinental settings in which to ruminate. He sets monologues in the intimacy of Hungarian cafes, Italian hotel rooms and, in an epilogue appended sometime after the original 1941 edition, a seamy midtown Manhattan bar. In the end, Ilonka loses Peter, Peter is abandoned by Judit, and Judit, dealt the best hand of all, is last seen admiring a lover in the early light of a Roman morning. This is a novel that dwells in both the ruins of marriage and empire.
Portraits is primarily set against the backdrop of war, and Hungary's social reshuffling is played out most acutely in Peter and Judit's romance, with love assuming the air of class jousting.
"We observed each other like opponents before a duel," Peter says of their courtship, which occurs following years of Judit working in his home. "At that time we still thought this duel would be the chief concern of our lives, a life-or-death affair, and that at the end of it, however scarred and patched by then, we would declare an armistice, a gentlemen's agreement."
But out of calculation or mistrust, armistice never comes. Peter thinks Judit distant and rehearsed; and Judit shares his opinion, viewing her marriage as an expression of his liberal guilt. But between her barbed comments and Marai's subtle irony, we can never be sure whether she's speaking in earnest. Cut ahead once again, to Judit rationalizing her decision to leave Peter — along with a cache of his jewels — to her new lover.
Much of this is revealed in the first sections of the novel, and as the plot progresses, the assumed drama of betrayal is understood as something more.
There are many ways of reading Portraits — romance, parable, cultural history — but all are bound up in the question of possession; or rather, the impossibility of it. Love, money, and homeland prove transient for Marai's characters, and in the absence of permanence, they're given the opportunity to explain themselves, to perform parts for unseen companions. Some of these dialogues work better than others, but what readers are left with is a radiant vision of loss, as well as the creeping sense that in the wake of failed romance, nobody is completely telling the truth.