Thursday, October 29, 2015

My Seventh Room

Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai

                                      "You can come so far, darling, but no further. Here is my seventh 
                                        room. Here, I want to be alone."

If—as James Wood insists—the gift of literature is to teach us to notice, then read this book and see. Set in Budapest between the wars, Portraits of a Marriage is an astonishingly well-wrought tale about the sometimes byzantine complexity of a marriage and its painful—in this case revelatory—dissolution. Told in three parts, first from the husband’s perspective, then from his wife’s, and finally from his mistress’s, the novel probes the depths of this outwardly unremarkable love triangle with a tenacity and precision that makes one feel positively obtuse, as if one has never considered one’s closest relationships at all. 

Of course that is the purview and triumph of great fiction, its ability to condense and refine experience so as to show us more in a minute than we could grasp (let alone assimilate) in a year. Real as it is (for the authenticity of this vision will shake you), the three portraits that comprise this extraordinary novel are too probing, too accurate, too finely distilled to be real. In their meticulous depictions of the warp and weft of human passions, they feel too real to be real, so real, so familiar, in fact, as to seem strange, exotic, as if they were not the studies of people, after all, but of so many crayfish or squid. 

1930s Budapest was part of the decaying cultural heart of the once-great Hapsburg Empire. As Hungary asserted its independence, political turmoil ensued, followed closely by a precipitous drop in the country’s standard of living, so that the general climate of the decade became increasingly defensive, reactionary, and jingoistic. The smugly stable bourgeois life for which the city was known began to unravel at the seams.

There is a certain human process that is more to be feared, that is worse than anything… It’s the process whereby we become cut off from each other, when we become little more than machines. We live according to stern domestic codes, work to an even stricter code of duty, surrounded by a social order governed by a thoroughgoing strictness that produces orderly forms of amusements, preferences, and affections, so our entire lives become predictable, knowing what time to dress, to take breakfast, to go to work, to make love, to be entertained, to engage in social refinements. There is order everywhere, a mad order. And in the grip of that order life freezes about us, as around an expedition that is prepared for a long journey to lush shores, but finds both sea and land icebound, so that eventually there is no plan, no desire, just cold and immobility. And cold and immobility are the definitions of death.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the inter-war years, Portraits of a Marriage, is a beautiful, deeply gratifying examination of the parallel collapse of a quintessentially bourgeois marriage, of that spell and convention we call love.

Sándor Márai was born in Kassa, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, in 1900. He rose to fame as one of the leading literary novelists in Hungary in the 1930’s. Profoundly anti-Fascist, he survived World War II, but persecution from the Communists drove him from the country in 1948, first to Italy and then to the United States. The author of some 46 books, he was also the first person to review Kafka's work. Márai committed suicide in San Diego in 1989.

Peter Adam Nash

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