Spanning late fin de siècle Budapest to the conclusion of World War II, Sándor Márai’s Portraits of a Marriage focuses less on love and more on the insurmountable effect of class on relationships. The romances occasionally seem pro forma and bloodless, but serve effectively as microcosms of the class tension rippling across Europe during this period.
The three narrators—a bourgeois industrialist and his two wives, the first insecurely middle-class and the second desperately poor—each get one third of the book to meditate on their relationships, all the while obliquely chronicling Hungary’s transformation from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the People’s Republic of Hungary. Inexorable and irresistible, it is Judit’s silent presence as a maid in the industrialist’s opulent family home that eventually drives the industrialist to divorce his first wife and, many years later, marry Judit. Márai’s clean realism and attention to the lively individual voices of these narrators keep Portraits a pleasure to read, even with an epilogue in the voice of a Hungarian emigre in New York that skirts close to caricature.
Shadowing the couples is Lázár, a writer and friend of the industrialist. Lázár inspires what seems to be the question at the heart of the novel: what is the relationship between culture and wealth? Is it, as Lázár emphasizes, an inherent quality, impossible to learn—a “reflex”? Or, as Judit suggests, is culture when any person, regardless of status, rejoices in their pursuits? This unresolved exploration into the uneasy marriage between culture and wealth adds dimension to the novel; while the desolation of a crumbling empire is worthy subject matter, to be sure, the argument around culture keeps the book vital as oppose to simply elegiac.
I’m trying not to attribute too much of the novel to Márai’s personal experience as a solidly middle-class journalist in pre-Communist Hungary, but even while condemning the hollow lives of the bourgeois, Portraits betrays a yearning for Budapest before war and communism stole the glamour of a city as refined as Vienna and twice as unlucky. Even Judit, whose passionate disgust for the gentry governs the final segment of the book, finds it impossible to completely shed her fascination with wealth—a captivation Márai clearly shares.