DH: Imagine that you owned a piece of antique jewelry, a black sapphire broach that was handed down to you from your great grandmother. The stone has a crack down the center so you don’t wear it. But over years of handling, you’ve grown very fond of it, even because of the crack. You find its rich, flawed beauty compelling.
That’s how I feel about the novel I’ve just read, Sandor Marai’s Portraits of a Marriage. Note the plural. SM had the idea to give each central character a first person voice in the novel. There’s the first wife, Ilona, the husband, Peter, the other woman, Judit, who becomes the second wife. And there’s also a lover of the second wife after she breaks up with Peter, who epilogues the story.
A writer, Lazar, doesn’t have a first person voice. The other characters do offside referrals to him. I’m assuming the writer is a stand-in for SM. It’s interesting that the writer dies in Rome about halfway through the plot. He dies obscure and forgotten so I’m doubly assuming that Sandor identifies with him. The choice of Rome is important. Auf Rom! as they say in Wagner’s Tannhauser and as Nietzsche parodied. Every central European writer would know what that means: an appeal to a lost spiritual center.
It’s point blank narration. Each character engages in dialogue. But it’s really monologue since the return conversation is not in the text. You infer what the second person has said. It’s like you’re talking to the wall.
There’s no independent descriptive writing. No third person narration. Instead there’s hundreds of pages of what amounts to personal testimony. It’s a bit like the classic film noir The Lady of the Lake produced by the ingenious Robert Montgomery. That film is considered awkward to watch but I love it. I had to watch it three times, however, before I entered into a sort of skewed comfort zone with it. Phillip Marlowe walks into a room and the camera pans as if you are looking through his eyes. The only time that you step back and see the character is when he is reflected in a mirror. That, and during the prologue and epilogue when he’s talking directly to those wonderful people out there in the dark.
Now I understand what third person narration is for. It’s awesomely difficult to tell a story without it. Point blank presentation of people makes us uncomfortable. We need the writer to provide us with some distance. It’s like the Lake movie in which the private dick meets the dark lady of the plot and she’s staring straight up into his face as if it were your face. You’re practically smudged by her heavily applied 1940’s makeup. I can’t do without that movie.
The character of the first wife and the early section of the novel are the most traditional part.. They had me totally fooled that the rest of the story was going to be like that. If you can’t be fooled by the writer then you shouldn’t be reading them. If I thought I could fool you, then I’d be published now.
Ilona is sitting in the silky comfort of a crimson-lined pastisserie. It’s the sort of place an older, more conventional woman would favor. She points out to her friend, whose speech, according to the strict presentation of this story, we never get to read, that most younger women prefer places that serve salads and espressos. Ilona sounds like she’s talking about Starbucks or one of those organic veggie places on lower Sixth avenue. But this is Budapest shortly before the holocaust of WWII.
This is the third novel I’ve read in the past couple of years that will chronicle the siege and destruction of Buda and Pest, sometimes referred to separately. This wasn’t my idea. It just happened because of my taste for reading a few books from that part of the world.
It’s a recurring nightmare, not mine, but central Europe’s. It’s like the end of the world. But don’t worry, I mean Sandor Marai’s. You can still go to Starbucks for now. How do you cope as a writer if the whole world that you intimately know, that you narrate in your art, just sinks into the sea like the lost continent of Atlantis? Read Portraits of a Marriage and you’ll find out.
Ilona’s ex-husband, Peter, who she hasn’t talked to in three years, walks into the pastisserie and buys candied orange peel at the counter. He pays by taking out the posh leather wallet that Ilona gave him as a present. She spots the wallet even from across the room. Wouldn’t you?
Candied orange peel? SM plants talismans throughout Portraits. It’s an old fashioned way to charge-up a story but the loss of the old ways is part of what this story is about. It’s the Titanic but we’re still dancing on deck.
Candied orange peel is Judit’s favorite snack, the other woman who led Peter to walk out on Ilona. So rub it in Ilona’s face Marai.
One third into the novel and you’ve heard all the domestic details of Ilona’s losing fight to keep her husband, point blank in the face and all from Ilona’s point of view. I was all sympathy. But there’s that other two thirds of the novel left and I especially want to hear Judit’s version of the story. What could she possibly say?
I have to refer to another movie. That’s Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Jimmy Stewart’s a retired detective who’s pathologically afraid of heights. But what’s really scary for JS is how people can turn into someone else. People wearing masks, not being who they seem to be. S even abets the process as the movie unfolds, impressing a woman into a false identity which turns out to be the counterfeit persona that she had adopted anyway.
As the personal testimonies of Ilona, Peter, Judit and others piled up, I felt like gripping the side of my chair to keep from being dizzy.
Once, when I was a kid, I was put under ether in a rebellious panic to mend a broken arm. At first I saw a circle of faces, doctors and nurses above me, but then the faces started to swirl around like a carousel of disembodied heads, faster and faster, until I could see only the dark.
What was Marai pulling on me? He breaks down the social structure of central Europe, shreds it all to pieces before my eyes in a brilliant but dated intellectual discussion. All the fine complex sentences coming out of this carousel of unlikely heads. What happened to portraits of a marriage? The plot went under. It submerged into sociology, historical study and urban catastrophe.
Which character was talking? It didn’t matter anymore. Marai kept pulling off the masks of his characters and showing me Marai, Marai, Marai.
I was angry and impatient with Portraits of a Marriage. But then the weirdest thing happened. SM brought back the story.
It was like coming back up after ether. In the epilogue a lost character reappears. And it’s so simple, so perfect, so human. Just when I had decided that Sandor Marai had given up on telling me the story of a marriage he closes off by telling me a great one. And because a character just cared, about someone else beside themselves, I cared too.
So that black cracked sapphire is beautiful. And if you look down deep into the flawed gemstone, you can see shadows dancing in the dark.