Much like a bit of DNA from a frozen mammoth somehow bringing that huge, stomping beast back to life, the novels of the Hungarian Sandor Marai -- many decades old, dealing with long-vanished worlds and only now published here -- have returned from literary extinction with unfaded fierceness and dazzle.
"Embers," the first to appear, in 2001, is a night-long verbal duel between two dying aristocratic rivals on the eve of World War II. The cuckolded husband employs a bitterly searching monologue; his cuckolder, a fulminating silence. Marai made the quarrel over ancient passions a tensely spacious surrogate for the breaking of nations that was about to shatter Europe for a second time in 20 years.
"Casanova in Bolzano" (2004) starts as a mannered, achingly funny farce. It ends with a three-way climactic exchange between the famous libertine, a powerful prince and the woman they both claim. Their arguments become a brilliantly searching examination of freedom and obligation, of seduction's art and society's governance, with the woman herself providing an unexpected conclusion. A third, "The Rebels" (2007), has a band of youths playing dangerous war games.
The novels endow distant times and places with an immediate freshness and power. They are not just elegant museums, though; they are the warring conquests and pillager fortunes that go to establish museums. Marai employs his extraordinary monologues and dialogues as cannons; and the outcomes, like history's, offer both sharp reversal and drifting ambiguity.
"Esther's Inheritance," the latest to be published in English, is smaller in reach than the others, and seemingly less dramatic. Its power builds, though, culminating as they do in climactic dialogues and a reversal that turns it on its head. On our head too, even though what Marai reveals he has hidden in plain sight.
Esther, an aging spinster, tells the story, which begins when she was living with Nunu, her cousin and companion, in a provincial town. Their large house and garden were all that remained of her father's wealth. The rest of it had been borrowed, swindled or simply filched by Lajos, an irresistible charmer who had moved in decades before, married Esther's sister Vilma and departed after Vilma died.
Her account recalls Lajos' return 20 years after his departure. "I want to write down what happened the day Lajos visited me for the last time and robbed me," she begins.
The tone is fateful, exalted; and when she announces that she is ready to die "because that's how things are, and because I have fulfilled my duties," we are certain that this will be a story of revenge. It will turn out to be something darkly different.
The telegram announcing Lajos' visit throws Esther into a state of jitters (Nunu, cynical and protective, advises hiding the bits of remaining silver.) Jittery but not frightened.
"Lajos never did anything deliberately wicked," she says. "He told me that he loved me -- and I don't doubt he meant it, even now -- but he happened to marry Vilma, maybe because she was prettier, maybe because that day the wind happened to be blowing from the east."
As for her, "he was the only man I ever loved." And the excitement comes back.
Lajos arrives in a big red car, cadging money from one of the assembled guests to pay the driver. He circulates through the party, joking, cajoling, promising. He woos Esther, asks if the house is mortgaged and comes back for a terrifying showdown.
He admits his lies and broken promises, says he only wants to make people happy, tells her he needs her to be his moral compass, not having one of his own. He blames her for failing to prevent his marriage to her sister: It is a woman's duty to fight for her love. Men can't. And now, he says, it is her duty to complete what was begun: to deed her house to him and then come to live -- well, not with him, since he hasn't any room -- in a nearby residence for elderly women which he will visit.
He is transparent, but his transparency is her trap. Esther sees through him, but what does foreknowledge have to do with fate? (Lajos will leave that evening with Esther's signature and 20 purloined jars of peach jam.)
Marai, who fled Hungary in 1948 and lived unrecognized in California until his death in 1989, is the Jeremiah among the moral, cultural and political ruins of old Central Europe. And the poet.
The novel ends with a transcendent image. Esther summons Nunu to read her the love letters Lajos wrote her years before and which her sister had intercepted. Barely does Nunu begin when the wind blows out the candle, leaving them in darkness. Nothing of Lajos can hold the light.