Esther's Inheritance

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Overview

Anewly translated novel from the great rediscovered Hungarian writer: a tautly suspenseful story of unrequited love and its still vivid consequences twenty years later.

What is it to be in love with a pathological liar and fantasist? Esther is, and has been for the more than two decades since Lajos disappeared from her life. Now all these years later, Lajos is returning, and the news brings both panic and excitement. While no longer young and thoroughly skeptical about Lajos, ...

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Esther's Inheritance

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Overview

Anewly translated novel from the great rediscovered Hungarian writer: a tautly suspenseful story of unrequited love and its still vivid consequences twenty years later.

What is it to be in love with a pathological liar and fantasist? Esther is, and has been for the more than two decades since Lajos disappeared from her life. Now all these years later, Lajos is returning, and the news brings both panic and excitement. While no longer young and thoroughly skeptical about Lajos, Esther still remembers how incredibly alive she felt when he was around. His presence bewitches everyone, and the greatest part of his charm—and his danger—lies in the deftness with which he wields that delicate power. Friends rally round protectively, but Lajos’s arrival begins a day of high theater that will leave Esther’s life dramatically changed again.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Márai is one of the greatmodern novelists, in the same league as Gabriel García Márquez.”
The Washington Post Book World

“Spellbinding.... A passionate tale.... Deliciously portentous: the deceptions woven around these characters introduce a sharp sliver of danger.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Deeply psychological.... Vivid and gripping....Pristinely wrought and breathtakingly incisive.”
Booklist (starred review)

Publishers Weekly

In this spellbinding fourth novel to be published posthumously in English (after The Rebels), Márai (1900-1989) weaves a passionate tale about a woman whose chance at love is very nearly stolen from her. Harbored peaceably at her family home in middle age with a cousin as her only companion after a lifelong disappointment in love, Esther receives a telegram from her former flame, Lajos, a masterful con artist who had declared his love for Esther, but then married her younger sister, Vilma. Lajos is locally beloved and reviled, and his dazzling return-with his two grown children by Vilma (who has since died) and a mysterious other woman and her son to whom he is indebted in tow-raises dark suspicions in Esther and her relatives. Márai's characterization of Lajos through the eyes of skeptical, still smitten Esther is deliciously portentous; the deceptions woven around these characters introduce a sharp sliver of danger into the narrative, especially as Esther's reliability is called into question. Márai is a fascinating writer readers of English will want more of. (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Like two of Márai's other novels published by Knopf, this one concerns a love triangle of sorts. But unlike Embers and Casanova in Bolzano, Esther's Inheritance is told from a woman's point of view. Esther has loved her late sister's husband for years; Lajos, a known con artist, uses this knowledge to manipulate her into giving him the deed to her house, her only possession and source of sustenance. Nearly everyone is prey to his charm, but Esther's submission is absolute and symbolic. On the surface, the novella tells the intimate story of an unhealthy relationship. But Márai, who considered it his responsibility to portray the disintegration of the Hungarian middle class, makes a much broader statement. While he may not have foretold the impact of capitalism on Hungarian society in the late 20th century, Márai isolates a human characteristic that leads the middle class toward its own destruction: the ease with which it is, sometimes even knowingly, manipulated by pretty words and empty promises. Recommended for readers who have enjoyed translations of Márai's other outstanding novels and memoir.
—Kurt H. Cumiskey

Kirkus Reviews

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 oldfriend says, "Doomed love cannot die"? Puzzling out Esther's surrender is what gives the story its rueful charm.

A finely wrought, heartbreaking self-portrait.

The Barnes & Noble Review
Esther's Inheritance opens as a confession. "Life has been extraordinarily kind to me, and, just as extraordinarily, it has robbed me of everything.... Die I must, because that's how things are, and because I've fulfilled my duties." It is a grand claim, and Esther knows it: "I realize [duties] is a big word to use, and now that I see it written down I feel a little scared." It is this very uncertainty -- the very failure to define the terms of her own existence -- that shapes the course of the events she narrates.

This seething, self-conscious melodrama is the imagining of the late Hungarian author Sándor Márai, whose body of WWII-era novels Knopf has been posthumously bringing into translation. The latest, Esther's Inheritance, a concise 1939 novella rendered into English by George Szirtes, feels almost deliberately dated. A loyal product of the Hapsburgs' collapsed empire, M?rai exists staunchly in a time and place where modernity has refused to chug its way forward. In the case of Esther, the voice and fitful heroine of this new translation, time has all but stopped. The Hungarian estate where she has lived out her days with only an elderly cousin for company is still without electricity, and her life has been largely unchanged since the defining event of her youth: her love for Lajos, a charismatic con man and compulsive liar, who married her sister instead.

Márai tends to orchestrate his fiction as if directing a play. As in his best-known novel, Embers, he confines the actions of Esther's Inheritance to a single day, within a lone solitary mansion where memories, and their attendant tragedies, are the only available avenues of escape. J. M. Coetzee summarizes the comradeship of these two novels perfectly in his 2002 essay on Márai, noting that they share "the same focus on a single character onstage throughout, a similar cryptic psychology issuing in an unexpected act." But where Embers does not make a subject of its own staginess, in this novel (in fact written chronologically three years earlier than Embers), the machinations of the theater become an occasionally aggressive leitmotif. Of Lajos's dramatic return to the estate after a 20-year absence, Esther observes, "It was pure theater, every word of it. The hours were artfully crammed: Scene One, 'The meal,' Scene Two, 'A walk round the garden.' Lajos, with his director's eye, occasionally spotted this or that group falling behind, and clapped his hands and brought the company into line." Lajos may delight in the role of stage master, but the others, Esther included, are all too happy to take their places in his tableaux.

Like Lajos, Márai's greatest talent is his staging; he is not, in fact, a very good writer. His descriptions can feel stilted, his capacity for cliché outmoded at best. Here is Esther, as Lajos tries to shift onto her the blame for their failed love:

That was the moment the curious numbness started, the kind sleepwalkers must feel when setting out on their dangerous course; I understood everything that was happening around me, I was fully aware of what I was doing and saying, I saw people clearly... but knew at the same time that whatever I was doing so sensibly and so firm of purpose was to some degree unconscious, that it was partly a dream.

While it would be easy, and more forgiving, to credit these well-worn turns of phrase to Esther's narration, there is a habitual stiffness to Márai's prose (it plagues even The Rebels, the most compelling of his translated novels). The language may be Esther's, but the artifice of Márai's structure is his own. Esther's confession works like a Nabokovian exercise in self-delusion, only the paradoxes of her "faithful representation" are too conspicuous for these subversions to feel potent. Almost as soon as Esther makes a statement, she undercuts her claims. She invokes a God-given sense of duty only to admit that "nowhere in my life and actions can I find the least trace of that biblical fury or passion..." Her promise to give an accurate account of the events of the day, by nature dubious, is tainted by her desire to lend her own life story a fatalist arc.

As a judge of character, however, Márai is capable of a complexity that often exceeds this limited frame: his analyses of his plot's moral reverberations have more finesse than do his descriptions. In the novel's climactic encounter between Esther and Lajos, Márai hits his best notes. Lajos's self-knowledge turns out to be his most potent weapon; of his wasted life he says, "I believe I was not altogether without talent. But talent and ambition are not enough. To be properly creative one needs something else...some special strength or discipline or a mixture of the two; the stuff, I think, they call character.... And that quality, that talent, is something that is missing in me." Love, he argues, is governed by some nameless law that "binds people together," and it is Esther who stands in violation: "I believe that of the two of us, Esther, it is I who am made of sterner stuff," he asserts. And he is not wrong. For all his depredation, Lajos can make a seductive speech. (As can Márai -- he writes a monologues more forcefully than he does their trappings.) Lajos and Esther's final conversation is stranger still for the fact that Esther knows she is being played and yet cannot stop herself from assuming her place in Lajos's design. Nor can we readers fully stand up to Lajos's rhetoric either, trapped as we are within Esther's latent desire to give into the force of his amorality. In an effort to claim for herself the love Lajos describes -- the will to "love courageously" -- Esther quite literally signs away her life to him.

In the end, what earns Márai his recent renaissance is not his sentence craft, nor the range of his vision, but his acuity as a diagnostician of the ravages of memory. His novels plumb the destructiveness of our relationship to the past, even as they refuse to leave that past behind. --Amelia Atlas

Amelia Atlas's reviews have appeared in the New York Sun, 02138, and the Harvard Book Review. She is currently based in Berlin.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400096664
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/6/2009
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 645,960
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Sándor Márai was born in Kassa, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1900, and died in San Diego, California, in 1989. He rose to fame as one of the leading literary novelists in Hungary in the 1930s. Profoundly antifascist, he survived the war, but persecution by the Communists drove him from the country in 1948, first to Italy, then to the United States. His novel Embers was published for the first time in English in 2001.
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Read an Excerpt

1

I don’t know what else God has in store for me. But before I die I want to write down what happened the day Lajos visited me for the last time and robbed me. I have been waiting three years to set this down. Now I feel an irresistible voice urging me on, insisting I should record the events of that day—and everything I know about Lajos—because it is my duty to do so and because I don’t have much time. There’s no mistaking such a voice. That is why I obey it, in God’s name.

I am no longer young nor healthy and soon I must die. Am I still afraid of dying? . . . That Sunday when Lajos visited us for the last time, I was, among other things, cured of my fear of death. Maybe time, which has not spared me, maybe memory, which is almost as ruthless as time, maybe some peculiar grace that, as my faith teaches, is sometimes granted the undeserving and the willful, maybe simply experience and old age enable me now to gaze on death with equanimity. Life has been extraordinarily kind to me, and, just as extraordinarily, it has robbed me of everything . . . what else can happen? Die I must, because that’s how things are, and because I have fulfilled my duties.

I realize that’s a big word to use, and now that I see it written down I feel a little scared. It’s a haughty word that I shall have to answer for sometime in front of someone. How long was it before I recognized my duty and how I resisted it, screaming and protesting most desperately, before I gave in. The first time I felt death might be salvation was when I knew that death was resolution and peace. Life alone is struggle and humiliation. And what a struggle it was! Who ordered it, and why was it impossible to avoid? I did all I could to escape it. But my foe pursued me. Now I know he could do nothing about it: we are bound to our enemies, nor can they escape us.

2

If I want to be honest—and what point in writing this if I am not?—I must confess that nowhere in my life and actions can I find the least trace of that biblical fury or passion, not even of the hardness and decisiveness, that seemed to strike strangers when it came to my views about Lajos or my personal fate. “I must do my duty!”—what a firm, declamatory expression. We live . . . then one day we notice that we have “done” or “not done” our duty. I have started to think that the great, decisive moments that broadly govern our lives are far less conscious at the time than they seem later when we are reminiscing and taking stock. By that time I had not seen Lajos for twenty years, and I thought myself inured against my memories. Then one day I received his telegram, which was like an opera libretto, just as theatrical, as dangerously childish and false, as everything he had said and written to others twenty years before . . . It was so much like a declaration, so full of promises, so clearly and transparently false, false! I went out to Nunu in the garden, the telegram in my hand, stood on the veranda, and loudly announced the news.

“Lajos is coming back!”

What would my voice have sounded like? It is unlikely that I was screaming with joy. I must have spoken like a sleepwalker suddenly woken out of her sleep. I had been sleepwalking for twenty years. For twenty years I had been walking at the edge of a precipice, neatly balanced, calm and smiling. Now I had been awoken and knew the truth. But I no longer felt dizziness. There is something calming about the sense of reality, whether of life or death. Nunu was binding the roses. She looked up at me from below, from a depth, under the deep roses, blinking in the sunlight, aged and calm.

“Well, of course,” she said.

She carried on binding.

“When?” she asked.

“Tomorrow,” I answered.

“Good,” she said. “I will lock away the silver.”

I started to laugh. But Nunu remained serious. Later she sat down next to me on the concrete bench and read the telegram. “We will arrive in a car,” wrote Lajos. From the rest we concluded he was bringing his children. “There will be five of us,” the telegram continued. Chicken, milk, cream, thought Nunu. Who were the other two? we wondered. “We’ll stay till the evening,” the telegram went on to announce, followed by the kind of awful fancy talk Lajos could never resist, not even in a telegram. “Five people,” said Nunu, “arriving in the morning to leave in the evening.” Her pale old lips moved soundlessly as she counted and calculated. She was working out the cost of dinner and supper. Having done so, she said:

“I knew he’d come back sometime. But he dare not come alone now! He’s bringing support, children and strangers. But there’s nothing here anymore.”

We sat in the garden and looked at each other. Nunu thinks she knows everything about me. And maybe she does know the truth, that simple ultimate truth we dress up in so many rags all our lives. I have always found Nunu’s “omniscience” a little insulting. But she had been so good to me, and her goodness was so wise, so dry and uncomplicated. Eventually I always gave in to her. In those last years, when my life seemed to have been shrouded in an invisible damp mist, she was the torch by whose weak and gentle light I could guide my steps. I knew the visit was unlikely to have truly dangerous, terrifying consequences, just as I knew that her suggestion, on reading the first few words of the telegram, that the silver be locked away was a joke. That’s an exaggeration, I thought. Nunu is teasing me. And I knew at the same time that in the end, at the last minute, Nunu would in fact lock away the silver, and that later still, once the silver was forgotten, when we discussed the whole thing, the thing that could not be hidden, Nunu would be somewhere nearby with her keys, in her best black dress, with her wrinkles, with her silent, observant caution. But I also knew that when that moment came I would be beyond all mortal help, even Nunu’s.

But it was pointless “knowing” all this; so all of a sudden my mood lifted as if nothing threatened me. I remember, I was joking with Nunu. We were sitting in the garden listening to the intoxicated hum of late-autumnal wasps, talking quietly and for a long time of Lajos and the children, as well as of Vilma, my dead sister. Our seat was in front of the house, under the window behind whose shutters Mother had died twenty-five years before. In front of us were the lime trees and Father’s apiary, but it was all empty now. Nunu didn’t like messing about with the hives, and one day we sold all eighteen colonies. It was September, gentle, mild days. We sat there with that familiar sense of security that smacks partly of shipwreck and partly of happiness without desire. Come on now, I thought, what is there left for Lajos to take away? . . . The silver? Ridiculous idea: what were a few bent silver spoons worth? I calculated that Lajos would have passed fifty now, in fact he would have been fifty-three in the summer. It was unlikely that one could help him with silver spoons. If this kind of thing did help, let him take them. Nunu must have been thinking something similar. Then she gave a sigh and went into the house, only turning round on the veranda.

“Be careful not to spend too much time alone with him. Invite Laci, Tibor, and Uncle Endre to lunch too, just as you do every other Sunday when you come together to fool about with spirits. Lajos has always been frightened of Endre, I do believe he owes him something. Remember, is there anyone to whom he does not owe anything?” she asked, and started laughing.

“They have all forgotten,” I said, and began to laugh myself.

I was already defending him. What could I do? He was the only man I ever loved.

From the Hardcover edition.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2013

    Another superb story by the author of Embers. Far above the gen

    Another superb story by the author of Embers. Far above the general run of novels today on many levels. A must read.

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