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After Death, a Literary Rebirth

Sandor Marai's works are discovered posthumously by his family and the English--speaking world.

January 15, 2002|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — By the time Sandor Marai touched the barrel of the gun to the roof of his mouth, he had already plotted how the next few minutes would unfold.

It was a warm and clear-skied Tuesday in February. The cleaning woman had the day off, so would not be wandering in. Marai's closest living relatives--his daughter-in-law and three teenage granddaughters--visited only on weekends, so they too would be spared the shock of finding their beloved "Poppa" in a blood-splattered room.

Marai, a writer known in a different time and place for the precision of his language, would be as fastidious in death as he was in life. The note to his family was finished; his last will and testament signed and witnessed. Everything was prepared.

A few minutes after 1 p.m. on Feb. 21, 1989, Marai picked up the telephone and called the police, telling them where to find his apartment overlooking San Diego's Balboa Park, and that he was about to kill himself.

It wasn't until after Marai's death, after the first waves of tears and questions and soul-shredding grief had ebbed, that Marai's American family began to realize the full scope of their Poppa's life.

They knew he was a writer but they hadn't studied Hungarian literature so did not know that he was there in the textbooks as the voice of Hungary's prewar middle class, the John Updike of his generation. As they cleaned out his apartment, they discovered scores of books stored in trunks, the name Sandor Marai beneath the Hungarian titles. There were unpublished diaries, too, an exile's take on a life disrupted.

The funeral brought its own surprises. Marai's aging friends showed up as expected but so too did journalists--and Radio Free Europe, which broadcast the eulogies to Hungary.

Thus it was that Marai's death opened doors to a life his granddaughters knew nothing about. Not only was he the quiet loving man who was a human bridge to their Hungarian roots, their family history was also a literary history.

Until recently, few Americans understood Sandor Marai's standing as a Hungarian man of letters. But a fresh translation of one of his novels--"Embers" (Knopf, $21) the first to appear in English--has lifted a veil on the past, for both readers and Marai's grandchildren.

Sarah Marai, 25, likes to type her grandfather's name on her computer and see where Internet search engines take her. There are articles and best-seller lists in German, French and Italian, languages she cannot read. There's a cultural foundation in Hungary that bears the Marai name, and a Hungarian postage stamp bearing his portrait in honor of the centenary of his birth in 1900.

And now there are the glowing reviews of "Embers." The book, which evokes central Europe before World War I, has received critical acclaim, elevating Marai to literary heights that he likely couldn't have envisioned.

"It would have been really neat if he could have seen all this," said granddaughter Lisa Marai, 32, of San Marcos. "He would have been surprised."

But not as surprised as his descendants have been.

"Amazon.com is where real writers have books, not your grandfather," Sarah said over coffee at a Carlsbad Starbucks, a convenient meeting place for the family to discuss a past suddenly of interest to strangers. "We really loved him and are very, very proud of him. I love my last name and I love seeing it, and his name, on books."

The past crops up in unusual places, too. Sarah works in promotions for the San Diego Zoological Society. More than a year ago, a woman who works in the accounting office asked Sarah whether she was related to Sandor Marai, the writer. "She said, 'I'm from Hungary and I've read all his works,'" Sarah recalled, marveling at the connection, despite distance and time.

"He was in a completely different country," Sarah, said, "and we don't speak Hungarian, so we didn't realize how important he was, and how respected he was."

A Forgotten Figure

To be rediscovered, one must first be lost. But Marai wasn't lost so much as forgotten and overlooked in a literary world dominated by English.

Born to a middle-class family in Kassa, now Kosice in Slovakia, Marai began writing for local newspapers when he was 14 and was an editor at 18. By then he was also publishing poetry, and went on to write novels, plays, essays and journals, according to unofficial biographies and a citation in "The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature" by Lorant Czigany (Oxford, 1984).

By the time war swept through Europe in the late '30s, Marai was considered one of Hungary's best writers of works that captured life among the small nation's bourgeoisie. Critics have compared his work to such 20th century European masters as Joseph Roth, Robert Musil and Thomas Mann.

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