Desired Desire

Adam Phillips

The first English translation of a novel by Sándor Márai, Embers, came out in 2001. It had been published in Hungary in 1942, but next to nothing was known in the West about its author: the publisher’s blurb said that he had been born in Kassa in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1900 and was one of the leading ‘literary’ novelists of the 1930s in Hungary; and that, ‘profoundly anti-Fascist, he survived the Second World War, but persecution by the Communists drove him from the country in 1948.’ He went first to Italy and then the United States, committing suicide in San Diego in 1989. The book itself was described as a masterpiece by several reviewers.

What was interesting about the pieces that were written on it was the nostalgia they betrayed for the great European fiction of the 19th century; it was the novel’s ‘wisdom’, ‘passion’, ‘beauty’, ‘intensity’ that was constantly referred to. Here was a novel, it was implied, unlike so much trashy, slick contemporary fiction, one that was about the great lost themes of honour and fate, about the conflict between loyalty to oneself and one’s ideals and the irresistible urgencies and emergencies of erotic passion. So serious was the book – in which two old men, best friends in their youth, meet for one last night after a lifetime’s estrangement, to discuss the sexual betrayal that has marked both their lives – that it seemed timeless. It also seems, from a different angle, like a spoof: a canny exposé of assumptions and expectations about Great European Literature. Márai’s theme seems to be – and this is confirmed by Conversations in Bolzano, the second of his novels to be translated – not merely the ineluctable and ‘tragic’ mysteries of passion, but rather passion as a form of self-importance. God may be dead or dying but passion is not; and passion is now the Great Dictator. This, of course, makes Márai rather more of a writer of his time, a writer wary of the rhetoric of the self-aggrandising. For him the idea of an individual or a nation having a destiny was pomposity at its most brutal.

Like many Modernist novels, Embers is laced with clues about how to read it; and about what reading it may be a way of thinking about, and not thinking about. In its camp melodrama, one of the two men tries to give as honest an account as he can both of his own life, and of his perception of his friend’s life. The friend is pretty much a silent listener; and the novel is an opportunity for an unusual character to say what he thinks about nearly everything of importance in life. It is a contemporary novel in the sense that it is a speaking-freely novel with its own suspicions about honesty. The narrator’s wife, with whom his friend had an affair, kept a diary:

She said she never wanted to have secrets from me or from herself, which is why she wanted to write down everything that otherwise could be hard to talk about. As I said, later I understood that someone who flees into honesty like that fears something, fears that her life will fill with something that can no longer be shared, a genuine secret, indescribable, unutterable.

Honesty is a preparation for the dishonesty ahead, a preoccupation of the criminally minded; or ‘honesty’ is the word we use to acknowledge that there are things we cannot say. If a novelist writes a confessional novel in which the confessor describes a person as ‘someone who flees into honesty’, the reader is supposed to prick up her ears. It is the very desire to give an accurate, an honest account of oneself, ‘to hew to the utmost honesty’, that makes Márai and his narrators suspicious; and not simply because people lie, but because one can never be quite sure what the wish to tell the truth is a wish to do. One of his suggestions, in Embers, is that honesty might be a plea to be forgiven one’s fate.

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