cover image Portraits of a Marriage

Portraits of a Marriage

Sándor Márai, trans. from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, Knopf, $27.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-4000-4501-3

This autopsy of a failed marriage shows a virtuosic control of character and tone meaningfully set against the ossification of the fin de siècle Austro-Hungarian empire. It starts with Ilonka, whose middle-class husband, Peter, is in love with his mother-in-law's maid, Judit. Ilonka's bitter tale of a fight to win her husband back, only to be outdone by the other woman, gives way to the same story told by Peter, itself followed by Judit's take. What emerges is a cubist portrait of a harsh love and a dying society, elegantly paced and delightfully contradictory. Ilonka, Peter, and Judit each possess strong philosophies on life and love, and Márai successfully probes the blind spots and conflicting assumptions in their varied points of view. With each new voice, each very much its own thanks to Szirtes's faultless new translation, Márai (1900–1989) builds suspense and reveals new layers and twists to this tale. Suffused with nostalgia and regret, the book evokes and examines both the nature of longing and the decline of a great empire. (Feb.)