The quiet horror of self-destructive love fuels this beautifully proportioned novella; since Embers (2001), this is the third work of the Hungarian (1900–89) to be translated into English.
Esther tells her story with reflective calm. The middle-aged woman lives simply with Nunu, an older female relative, in their family home in the country. The sale of almonds from their garden keeps them afloat. Some 25 years before, Esther had fallen passionately in love with Lajos, “the only man I ever loved.” Lajos had appeared to return her love yet went on, inexplicably, to marry her kid sister Vilma. At that time Lajos enthralled her whole family, but especially her brother Laci; the two men had lived together in the capital when college students. Unfortunately Lajos was a charismatic fraud, always lying to cover up his debts. Esther had seen through him from the start, but had been swept away by the desire to live dangerously, Lajos’s philosophy. Back to the present. A telegram arrives from Lajos: He’s coming to visit for the day. Wise old Nunu knows he must be after money. Lajos brings with him his grown children (Vilma died long ago) and two other people, strangers. Márai shades his character subtly. Lajos still has his old magic and is much more appealing than his equally predatory daughter, but once alone with Esther, he asks her if the house still has a mortgage, and almost immediately she signs over the house to him, insisting only that Nunu’s future be protected. Esther is under no illusions. She knows that Lajos is, as the public notary warns her, “a scoundrel.” So why does she do it? Is she hoping for a miracle? Does she want to live dangerously again? Is it because, as an old friend says, “Doomed love cannot die”? Puzzling out Esther’s surrender is what gives the story its rueful charm.
A finely wrought, heartbreaking self-portrait.