Budapest, Hungary – Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, arguably the most famous and popular of his generation, committed suicide in San Diego, United States, on February 21, 1989, after finishing his life in exile estranged from his native country.
Over the course of his life, Hungarian, the language in which he wrote, became his only link and last bond to his motherland. Márai lived his life in exile, and that’s what his novels tell us: the story of a Hungary he left, the story of exile and the lost touch of homeland. His work reflects his personal story, and the motives of his life.
Sándor Márai, a stranger in his hometown
Sándor Márai was born in 1900 in Kassa, nowadays Košice in modern-day Slovakia but then part of the Hungarian Empire.
In 1920, after the defeat in World War I, the Treaty of Trianon divided Hungary, which lost two thirds of its territory and three millions inhabitants. Kassa, re-baptized Košice, was no longer part of Hungary, but incorporated in the newly-founded Czechoslovakia.
Márai became a stranger in his own town; he lived what can be considered as a typical central European fate in the beginning of the 20th century: the country he was born in didn’t exist anymore, he was considered as part of a minority in a territory where, yesterday, his people ruled over other ethnicities.
The right to self-determination, praised by the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in his famous Fourteen Points, had been respected for all but the losers. The segmentation of Hungary led to a political agitation which culminated in Béla Kun’s communist coup and, to a larger extent, to a feeling of injustice that still influences and poisons Hungarian politics today.
But the events of 1920 also helped shape the future of Márai: a writer who will always, more or less figuratively, live in a state of exile. After the failure of Kun’s Hungarian People’s Republic, Márai, who supported the brief communist regime, left Central Europe and traveled to the western part of the continent until 1928, before returning to Hungary.
The traveler faced with internal exile
These years abroad, as a foreign traveler, durably influenced his writings. The image of the foreigner, the stranger, will be a recurrent figure in his books. In The Strangers (Idegen Emberek), the main character is a Hungarian man exiled, first in Germany and then in France, having to face suspicion and xenophobia throughout his journey.
In his novel The Seagull (Sirály), Márai confronts the reader with the character of Aino Laine, a young Finnish woman searching for protection in Hungary after her country was attacked by the Soviet Union and she lost her home.
Aino, like Márai himself, has lost her home; but he also sees her as a sister due to her origins: like Hungarians, Finnish speak a Finno-Ugric, non-Indo-European language, and are linguistically estranged from the rest of Europe. That is how Aino becomes to be viewed by the main character, a Hungarian: someone who shares the same loneliness due to her linguistic background, the same internal exile.
The story of Aino Laine also revolves around the fact that she looks like a woman the narrator loved when he was younger, but who died later on: Aino is the look-alike twin, and yet not the same, of a deceased woman; the Finnish woman is the twin of Kassa, which Márai lost when it became Košice, a city that will briefly be reincorporated into Hungary, but never the same as it once was.
Hungary recovered Kassa/Košice and the southern part of modern-day Slovakia in 1938. But this longing for the territories lost following the Treaty of Trianon, which led Hungary to ally itself with Nazi Germany, was an additional step towards World War II and a brief compensation that did not last long.
A tyrannical liberation
Sándor Márai came back to Hungary in 1928. Antifascist, he witnessed the rule of Horthy, the admiral of a kingdom without any sea, the birth of the Arrow Cross Party, the Hungarian fascist party, and the rise of totalitarianism in his country. These were the last years Márai ever spent in Hungary.
His most eloquent work about World War II is probably Liberation (Szabadulás), a novel written in only a few months right after the end of the Budapest siege in 1945 and only published in 2000. Liberation tells the story of Erzsébet, a young woman who takes refuge in a cellar during the siege. The novel reflects all the horror of the end of the Nazi occupation, of the Arrows Crosses’ rule in Budapest and of the liberation by Soviet soldiers.
In a masterful rendition, Sándor Márai manages to encompass the entire international conflict within the confines of a Budapest cellar, where inhabitants hide from bombings and soldiers from both the Soviet and Nazi camps. The liberation of the title itself is a lie: Erzsébet is raped by a Soviet soldier supposed to free her city, right in front of a disabled Hungarian man she had previously helped and who does nothing for her.
The new, post-World War II Hungary begins on the grounds of violence and cowardice.
Márai, a literature of farewell and parting
If, during this period of his life, Márai wasn’t exiled, he nonetheless witnessed the birth of a new world he couldn’t accept, felt estranged from, and from which he escaped in 1948. He fled from the Soviets who liberated Hungary, or rather from the rule they were setting up and described in Föld, Föld!…, translated under the title Memoir of Hungary. In this book, he explains how, torn between his native country and the new barbarism casting its shadow over Hungary, he chose to run away. He lived 41 more years, but never returned.
Isolated, in Italy and then in the United States, Márai resumed his writing. Despite being ignored by the Hungarian communist authorities and his novels censored in his country, he still wrote in Hungarian: his mother tongue became the only homeland he still possessed. He developed a literature of farewell initiated in 1940 with Casanova in Bolzano (Vendégjáték Bolzanóban), a novel in which a famous seducer, assimilated to Casanova, leaves Italy and his last great love, Francesca.
In what is probably his most well-known novel, Embers (A gyertyák csonkig égnek), Márai describes the reunion of two childhood friends after forty-one years during which they didn’t see each other. The end of a friendship echoes the dying of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the story of people definitely leaving each other.
This is the last exile of Sándor Márai, born in a city that linguistically doesn’t exist anymore and writing in a language thousands of miles away from home. He committed suicide in February 1989, a few months before the communist regime collapsed in Hungary.
Debunking the myths and legends
In Föld, Föld!… and Hallgatni akartam, Sandor Marai recounts his lost homeland; but if in the first he tries to recollect his memories of the last years he spent in Hungary, in the second, he denounces the drift of Hungarian history and politics.
By acknowledging Hungarian faults throughout the 20th century, Márai doesn’t fall into the trap of a specific historical narrative which has, until today, taken over the political discourse in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe. He doesn’t describe history through the prism of martyrdom and suffering, and accepts to recognise the perversity of the 20th century, the massacres, crimes and wrongdoings caused or done by his own country.
Like in Peace in Ithaca (Béke Ithakában), Márai refuses to take historical myths for granted and untouchable totems; in this novel, he humanizes mythological heroes like Ulysses, Penelope, Helen of Troy, making them despicable and flawed.
In real life, he denounces the myths surrounding a supposedly innocent Hungary whose only fault was to fall prey to the Trianon Treaty: the exiled wanderer, far from his home, doesn’t yield to the temptation of idealizing it. Sándor Márai looks for the truth, ceaselessly.
By Louise Ostermann Twardowski
A French student of Polish descent, Louise studies languages (Polish, Hungarian, Russian), linguistics and literature and is passionate about Central European history, culture and literature.