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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

Marai survived the Nazis and their World War II collaborators, and even published some works during those years. The Communists who solidified power in 1948, though, proved to be more difficult. Writers were expected to publish works of socialist realism, ennobling both the worker and the revolutionary while denouncing the bourgeois values that framed Marai's life and his art.

Fear of Persecution

Marai sought to remain silent, "to write for the drawer." But the Communists, he wrote, "would not let me be silent freely." Fearing persecution--and possibly death--Marai decided to leave rather than write as bidden. It was a difficult choice: "I had to pay the price for denying them the opportunity to corrupt me," Marai wrote.

After stints in Italy and Switzerland, Marai and his wife and son moved in 1952 to New York, where Marai spent 15 years--the early part of the Cold War--working for Radio Free Europe.

The son, John, became a salesman. He married Harriet in 1968, the year after his parents left New York for Italy. In 1980, Marai and Ilona moved to San Diego, where John and his family had settled.

Marai and Ilona were devoted to each other, sharing passions for books and cigarettes, Hungarian memories and their adult son. The father and son were especially close, Harriet said, and spent hours talking in Hungarian about art, politics and history.

By the time Marai moved to San Diego, he was done producing work for publication. Most of his writings in exile were memoirs and diaries, but by 1980 he was even finished with those. So at a time when he moved closer to the lives of his American family, he stepped away from the Hungarian-rooted work that had sustained him.

His granddaughters found happiness with the proximity of the aging and generous couple.

"He gave me his encyclopedias," recalled Jennifer. "For my 13th birthday he gave me an envelope with $400 in it. [My parents] made me give all but $20 back."

In 1986, Marai's life began crumbling. His wife developed throat cancer and died. Marai, John and Harriet boarded a small boat in La Jolla and motored three miles out to sea to scatter her ashes.

Ilona's passing seemed to open death's floodgates. Within months, Marai's sister and two brothers also died, and the next year his son, at age 46, succumbed to pancreatic cancer just days after being diagnosed, sending a whirlwind of emotions through the family--and Marai. "He sat in there with Dad and kept saying, 'Take me, take me,'" said granddaughter Jennifer. "After Dad died, his whole demeanor declined. It contributed to his bad health."

Marai and his daughter-in-law again drove to La Jolla, where they scattered John's ashes at sea. Such rituals are meant to help heal the living, but Marai's wounds went deep. Rather than finding solace, he found loneliness that he once described as being the last guest at a party as the gracious and patient host sneaks a glance at his watch.

Two years later, Marai--who had written a friend that he was losing patience with life--killed himself. His granddaughters were allowed to attend the funeral but were left behind when their mother made the now-familiar trip to the La Jolla docks, where she once again boarded the small, open boat.

She and the pilot motored out to sea, alone but for a little box from the funeral home. "We both said a few words and he read something from the Bible and we had a moment of silence," she said.

And then they scattered the extinguished embers of Sandor Marai's life to the wind and the waves.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

They walked over to the fireplace and in the cold glow cast by the wall lights they subjected each other, in the blink of an eye, to a sharp and expert appraisal.

Konrad was a few months older than the General; he had turned seventy-five that spring. The two old men looked at each other with the knowledge that only the aged can bring to the vagaries of the body: with an absolute attention to physical evidence, seeking the remaining signs of vital energy, the faint traces of joie de vivre still illuminating their faces and energizing their bearing.

"No," said Konrad seriously. "Neither of us is getting any younger."

Yet both of them experienced the same flash of envious but joyful surprise as they recognized that the other had passed the hard test: The forty-one years that had elapsed, the time of their separation in which they had not seen each other and yet had known of each other at every hour, had not broken them. We endured, thought the General. And his guest felt a strange sensation of peace, mingled with both disappointment and pleasure--disappointment, because the other man was standing there alert and healthy, pleasure because he himself had managed to return here in full possession of his powers--as he thought, "He's been waiting for me, and that's what's kept him strong."

[The General] leans back and lets his arms drop wearily.

"Now there is no further point in asking anything.... One would need to know why all this happened. And where the boundary lies between two people. The boundary of betrayal. That is what one would need to know. And also, where in all this my guilt lies? ... "

He asks this very quietly, and his voice is uncertain. It is evident from his words that this is the first time he has uttered them aloud, after he has carried them in his soul for forty-one years and until now has found no answer.

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