After Death, a Literary Rebirth


By the time Sandor Marai touched the barrel of the gun to the roof of his mouth, he had already plotted how the next few minutes would unfold.

It was a warm and clear-skied Tuesday in February. The cleaning woman had the day off, so would not be wandering in. Marai’s closest living relatives--his daughter-in-law and three teenage granddaughters--visited only on weekends, so they too would be spared the shock of finding their beloved “Poppa” in a blood-splattered room.

Marai, a writer known in a different time and place for the precision of his language, would be as fastidious in death as he was in life. The note to his family was finished; his last will and testament signed and witnessed. Everything was prepared.

A few minutes after 1 p.m. on Feb. 21, 1989, Marai picked up the telephone and called the police, telling them where to find his apartment overlooking San Diego’s Balboa Park, and that he was about to kill himself.

It wasn’t until after Marai’s death, after the first waves of tears and questions and soul-shredding grief had ebbed, that Marai’s American family began to realize the full scope of their Poppa’s life.


They knew he was a writer but they hadn’t studied Hungarian literature so did not know that he was there in the textbooks as the voice of Hungary’s prewar middle class, the John Updike of his generation. As they cleaned out his apartment, they discovered scores of books stored in trunks, the name Sandor Marai beneath the Hungarian titles. There were unpublished diaries, too, an exile’s take on a life disrupted.

The funeral brought its own surprises. Marai’s aging friends showed up as expected but so too did journalists--and Radio Free Europe, which broadcast the eulogies to Hungary.

Thus it was that Marai’s death opened doors to a life his granddaughters knew nothing about. Not only was he the quiet loving man who was a human bridge to their Hungarian roots, their family history was also a literary history.

Until recently, few Americans understood Sandor Marai’s standing as a Hungarian man of letters. But a fresh translation of one of his novels--"Embers” (Knopf, $21) the first to appear in English--has lifted a veil on the past, for both readers and Marai’s grandchildren.

Sarah Marai, 25, likes to type her grandfather’s name on her computer and see where Internet search engines take her. There are articles and best-seller lists in German, French and Italian, languages she cannot read. There’s a cultural foundation in Hungary that bears the Marai name, and a Hungarian postage stamp bearing his portrait in honor of the centenary of his birth in 1900.

And now there are the glowing reviews of “Embers.” The book, which evokes central Europe before World War I, has received critical acclaim, elevating Marai to literary heights that he likely couldn’t have envisioned.

“It would have been really neat if he could have seen all this,” said granddaughter Lisa Marai, 32, of San Marcos. “He would have been surprised.”

But not as surprised as his descendants have been.

“ is where real writers have books, not your grandfather,” Sarah said over coffee at a Carlsbad Starbucks, a convenient meeting place for the family to discuss a past suddenly of interest to strangers. “We really loved him and are very, very proud of him. I love my last name and I love seeing it, and his name, on books.”

The past crops up in unusual places, too. Sarah works in promotions for the San Diego Zoological Society. More than a year ago, a woman who works in the accounting office asked Sarah whether she was related to Sandor Marai, the writer. “She said, ‘I’m from Hungary and I’ve read all his works,’” Sarah recalled, marveling at the connection, despite distance and time.

“He was in a completely different country,” Sarah, said, “and we don’t speak Hungarian, so we didn’t realize how important he was, and how respected he was.”

A Forgotten Figure

To be rediscovered, one must first be lost. But Marai wasn’t lost so much as forgotten and overlooked in a literary world dominated by English.

Born to a middle-class family in Kassa, now Kosice in Slovakia, Marai began writing for local newspapers when he was 14 and was an editor at 18. By then he was also publishing poetry, and went on to write novels, plays, essays and journals, according to unofficial biographies and a citation in “The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature” by Lorant Czigany (Oxford, 1984).

By the time war swept through Europe in the late ‘30s, Marai was considered one of Hungary’s best writers of works that captured life among the small nation’s bourgeoisie. Critics have compared his work to such 20th century European masters as Joseph Roth, Robert Musil and Thomas Mann.

“Embers,” originally published in 1942, is one of Marai’s lesser works in the eyes of Hungarian readers. The story uses a dinner reunion between two boyhood friends to explore fidelity and abandonment, honor and guilt. The dinner is hosted by a general-aristocrat; the guest is a lower-born aesthete better suited to a life of music than the soldiering under which the men’s friendship grew.

But it is also the story of a time past, and the smothering nature of memory when it is clung to and nurtured to the point of obsession.

“This is the Hungarian middle class whose way of life I was born into, observed, came to know and scrutinized in all its features to the very roots, and now I see the whole disintegrating,” Marai once wrote of his work. “Perhaps this is my life’s, my writing’s sole duty: to delineate the course of this disintegration.”

Czigany, now of London, said the relevance of Marai’s work lies in his explorations of human motives and emotions, timeless themes that resonate beyond period and place.

“He is considered one of the greatest Hungarian novelists of the 20th century,” said Czigany, who has written extensively on Hungarian literature. “He has a revival in Germany and Italy, translations coming out in quick succession. His name is often mentioned in Hungarian TV and radio programs. He has a very well-felt presence on the literary scene.”

Yet none of that happened until after Marai’s death.

Because he was a staunch anti-communist, his works ceased to be published in Hungary after the Communists secured their hold in 1948, Czigany said. But after the collapse of communism, his works from prewar years were published in rapid succession, including novels written during his emigre years.

Most of those works were published by Vorosvary Publishing, outside of Toronto, in Hungarian for an expatriate audience. Some were translated into German and French but none were published in English in Marai’s lifetime, adding to the anonymity of his final years in a neighborhood of apartment buildings, offices and churches northeast of downtown San Diego.

“Somehow he just got missed, and he went through the cracks,” said Carol Brown Janeway, an editor at Knopf who is overseeing translation of his works into English. Janeway said she first heard of Marai from a friend in Italian publishing who gave her three new French translations of Marai novels, including “Embers.”

“I started to read about 9 o’clock at night and read till 3:30 in the morning, reading it cover to cover,” Janeway said. “It’s a very unconventional novel ....I was just blown away by it. Then I read the other two novels and liked them enormously, so I ultimately bought the rights to publish them in English, and translated the first one myself.”

Janeway doesn’t speak Hungarian so she translated “Embers” from German, which drew sharp criticism from Hungarian translators who said her decision leaves readers too far from Marai’s original words. Janeway defended the translation on grounds of expediency. “There is only a handful of fine literary translators from Hungarian,” Janeway said. “It’s almost a lost language, in terms of English. Good people are booked up years ahead.”

Many of the details of Marai’s life are lost to his surviving descendants--Harriet McMullen, the widow, since remarried, of Marai’s adopted son; and their three daughters. For instance, the family knows nothing about Marai’s parents, whether he was the son of shopkeepers or clerks, lawyers or bankers. The past is probably captured for them in Hungarian-language books, written by Marai and about Marai. But they do not understand Hungarian.

“We never had a clue what he was writing,” said Harriet, who was born and raised in Massachusetts. “In some books my name is mentioned, and I always wonder, what is he writing about me?”

Some hints of Marai’s early life are sprinkled through his “Memoir of Hungary: 1944-48,” originally published in Hungarian in 1972 and translated into English in 1996. He describes the Budapest apartment he shared with his wife, Ilona, for 20 years as filled with furniture passed down from the estates of their families. He writes about pictures of his father and grandfather and other relatives hanging on the walls in spaces not consumed by the 6,000 books in his personal library. And he mentions the white-gloved maid who clears the dishes after 11 Marai relatives have dined together on the night in March 1944 when the Germans took over Hungary.

Marai and Ilona had a son, Christopher, who died shortly after his birth in 1939 or 1940. After air raids destroyed their Budapest apartment, the couple fled to a nearby village, where they looked after a young boy who would become their adopted son--and would eventually father their three American-born granddaughters.

Marai survived the Nazis and their World War II collaborators, and even published some works during those years. The Communists who solidified power in 1948, though, proved to be more difficult. Writers were expected to publish works of socialist realism, ennobling both the worker and the revolutionary while denouncing the bourgeois values that framed Marai’s life and his art.

Fear of Persecution

Marai sought to remain silent, “to write for the drawer.” But the Communists, he wrote, “would not let me be silent freely.” Fearing persecution--and possibly death--Marai decided to leave rather than write as bidden. It was a difficult choice: “I had to pay the price for denying them the opportunity to corrupt me,” Marai wrote.

After stints in Italy and Switzerland, Marai and his wife and son moved in 1952 to New York, where Marai spent 15 years--the early part of the Cold War--working for Radio Free Europe.

The son, John, became a salesman. He married Harriet in 1968, the year after his parents left New York for Italy. In 1980, Marai and Ilona moved to San Diego, where John and his family had settled.

Marai and Ilona were devoted to each other, sharing passions for books and cigarettes, Hungarian memories and their adult son. The father and son were especially close, Harriet said, and spent hours talking in Hungarian about art, politics and history.

By the time Marai moved to San Diego, he was done producing work for publication. Most of his writings in exile were memoirs and diaries, but by 1980 he was even finished with those. So at a time when he moved closer to the lives of his American family, he stepped away from the Hungarian-rooted work that had sustained him.

His granddaughters found happiness with the proximity of the aging and generous couple.

“He gave me his encyclopedias,” recalled Jennifer. “For my 13th birthday he gave me an envelope with $400 in it. [My parents] made me give all but $20 back.”

In 1986, Marai’s life began crumbling. His wife developed throat cancer and died. Marai, John and Harriet boarded a small boat in La Jolla and motored three miles out to sea to scatter her ashes.

Ilona’s passing seemed to open death’s floodgates. Within months, Marai’s sister and two brothers also died, and the next year his son, at age 46, succumbed to pancreatic cancer just days after being diagnosed, sending a whirlwind of emotions through the family--and Marai. “He sat in there with Dad and kept saying, ‘Take me, take me,’” said granddaughter Jennifer. “After Dad died, his whole demeanor declined. It contributed to his bad health.”

Marai and his daughter-in-law again drove to La Jolla, where they scattered John’s ashes at sea. Such rituals are meant to help heal the living, but Marai’s wounds went deep. Rather than finding solace, he found loneliness that he once described as being the last guest at a party as the gracious and patient host sneaks a glance at his watch.

Two years later, Marai--who had written a friend that he was losing patience with life--killed himself. His granddaughters were allowed to attend the funeral but were left behind when their mother made the now-familiar trip to the La Jolla docks, where she once again boarded the small, open boat.

She and the pilot motored out to sea, alone but for a little box from the funeral home. “We both said a few words and he read something from the Bible and we had a moment of silence,” she said.

And then they scattered the extinguished embers of Sandor Marai’s life to the wind and the waves.



They walked over to the fireplace and in the cold glow cast by the wall lights they subjected each other, in the blink of an eye, to a sharp and expert appraisal.

Konrad was a few months older than the General; he had turned seventy-five that spring. The two old men looked at each other with the knowledge that only the aged can bring to the vagaries of the body: with an absolute attention to physical evidence, seeking the remaining signs of vital energy, the faint traces of joie de vivre still illuminating their faces and energizing their bearing.

“No,” said Konrad seriously. “Neither of us is getting any younger.”

Yet both of them experienced the same flash of envious but joyful surprise as they recognized that the other had passed the hard test: The forty-one years that had elapsed, the time of their separation in which they had not seen each other and yet had known of each other at every hour, had not broken them. We endured, thought the General. And his guest felt a strange sensation of peace, mingled with both disappointment and pleasure--disappointment, because the other man was standing there alert and healthy, pleasure because he himself had managed to return here in full possession of his powers--as he thought, “He’s been waiting for me, and that’s what’s kept him strong.”

[The General] leans back and lets his arms drop wearily.

“Now there is no further point in asking anything.... One would need to know why all this happened. And where the boundary lies between two people. The boundary of betrayal. That is what one would need to know. And also, where in all this my guilt lies? ... “

He asks this very quietly, and his voice is uncertain. It is evident from his words that this is the first time he has uttered them aloud, after he has carried them in his soul for forty-one years and until now has found no answer.