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02.27.11

Must-Read Novels

Three new novels: Sandor Marai's elegantly layered portrait of a marriage, T.C. Boyle's skewering of political pieties, and aging Chilean revolutionaries gather once more.

“It’s not enough to be a Hungarian. . .”

Few things are more painful than being a successful writer born in a small country with an impenetrable language. It’s one thing to be writing in South or Latin America, where, except for Brazil, every country, however small and hard to find on a map, speaks Spanish, but quite another to be writing in, say, Hungary, a landlocked nation of 10 million people, with a language that very few people outside Hungary can read or speak. It was taken as something of a miraculous accomplishment when Franz Joseph, the emperor of Austro-Hungary (1830-1916), learned the language of the other half of his empire, and as the final example of the American literary critic Edmund Wilson’s lifelong eccentricity when he set out to learn Hungarian shortly before his death in 1972. Hungarian is not an easy language to learn, and Hungary is not an easy country to live in: More than 1,000 years of history, much of it violent, complicated, bloody, and directed toward the task of protecting Hungary from its larger non-Hungarian speaking neighbors, have been poured into a very small space—if any country suffers from having too much history for its own good, it is Hungary.

Hungarian writers have suffered over the centuries from a language that, however rich it may be, drastically limits their readership, and in the previous century, since Austro-Hungary’s defeat in World War I, from the emigration of large numbers of Hungarian artists and intellectuals to the West, partly because a disproportionate percentage of them were Jewish, and fleeing rapidly intensifying anti-Semitism, and partly in search of a larger audience in Paris, London, New York, or Hollywood.

Sándor Márai, who was a much-admired and successful novelist in Hungary between the wars, was not Jewish, but his instinctive hatred of fascism and of communism, and Hungary’s swift transition from a reluctant ally of Nazi Germany to a Soviet “people’s democracy” nevertheless brought him to an unlikely (and unhappy) exile in San Diego, of all places, in 1948, where he eventually committed suicide. Portraits of him show an austere and somewhat judgmental face, as if even at the height of his success he was aware that he was swimming against the tides of history and literary fashion. Even his birthplace, Kassa, is now in Slovakia, rather than Hungary, so he not only died in a foreign country but in the end was born in one—a typically Hungarian note of irony to his life. What is more, he was a master of a vanishing school of fiction, one which was vanishing even as he was writing his books, the European bourgeois “novel of manners,” which perhaps reached its peak in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, at the same time as it was under attack in Britain and America.

Portraits of a Marriage is a superbly readable “bourgeois novel,” very much a product of Austro-Hungarian sensibility, like Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, which it rather resembles, that is it combines a world-weary irony with a very Mitteleuropäische blend of discreet eroticism and pessimism. At its center are a small group of people trapped in or by an apparently conventional bourgeois marriage, which turns out not to be conventional at all. There is nothing particularly Hungarian about it, except the names of the characters and the history they live through in the course of four decades—all of it could be taking place, with some change of details, in Vienna, Berlin, Prague, or Paris. Essentially, it is about a vanished world of “good breeding,” good manners, intense class-consciousness, overstuffed apartments, fiercely guarded conventions, many servants, and of quietly unhappy marriages, under the façade of which lie many secrets that the reader uncovers with surprise one by one—indeed, what Márai is best at is concocting surprises and keeping them from the reader for as long as possible, like one of those rich, beloved Central European desserts, in which one uncovers layer after layer of hot pastry and sauces only to find, at the center, an unexpected scoop of cold ice cream.

In this slightly old-fashioned, but deeply satisfying and very readable novel, in which a single marriage is described by several different people, one after the other, each of them seeing it in a different way, until the reader finally comes as near to understanding what it was like, what was involved, what was really happening as opposed to what people thought or said was happening, as it is possible for a human being to do. The first person to describe it is Ilona, the first wife of Peter, describing the marriage to a woman friend some years after it was over. Ilona is beautiful, caring, slightly overcome by having married ever so slightly “upwards” into a very wealthy, well-connected bourgeois family, with very high standards about everything. Her husband Peter cares for her, is sometimes amused by her, but, as Ilona increasingly (and painfully) comes to understand does not love her at all, is perhaps, she thinks wrongly, incapable of love. The slow withering of their marriage leads to its final collapse after the death of their son—and to Ilona’s discovery that there has been, all along, another woman in Peter’s life.

The next view of the marriage is that of Peter’s, who by the time he tells it, has already married and divorced another woman. That woman is Judit, a maid in Peter’s parents’ home, a beautiful young woman of very strong character with whom the young Peter fell in love—hopelessly in love, of course, since the class differences between a young woman from the countryside who becomes a maid and the young son and heir of a wealthy bourgeois family are unbridgeable. Peter is sent abroad to get over his impossible infatuation with a servant, while Judit goes abroad herself, works as a maid in London, and learns the middle-class behavior and Weltanschaung of her German-Jewish employers. Judit is the woman whom Peter has been yearning for secretly during all the years of his marriage to Ilona. She marries Peter at last, and they have, on the surface, a very happy marriage.

The next view of all this is told by Judit, in Rome, some time after the breakup of her marriage to Peter, in the form of a long and self-revealing narrative to her new lover, a Hungarian jazz drummer, like her, of the lower classes, after the war, with its terrible experiences, which briefly and surprisingly reunited her for a moment with Peter.

Finally, in the surprise ending without which no novel of this kind can be written, Judit’s lover appears in New York, after the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956, now a barman in a theater district bar, giving a fellow Hungarian his version of the marriage, as he heard about it from Judit, a lower-class, sharpy’s view of it all, which contrasts sharply with what we have learned from Peter and Ilona, and even from Judit.

What is hard to convey is the rich complexity of Márai’s characters, and the amount of sympathy that he manages to evoke for them. Like Tolstoy, he has a kind of genius for the small touches that define a marriage and the relationship between two people, and also like Tolstoy, he is brilliant at dissecting the tiny differences that separate one layer of society from another—Peter’s underwear with the family crest embroidered in it is a perfect example. Perhaps unfortunately for him he has no corresponding gift for the big picture, thus the rise of Hungarian fascism, the war, the German occupation, the murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews by the S.S. and the Hungarian Arrow Cross thugs, the siege of Budapest and the occupation of Hungary by the Soviet Union all take place off stage—the book is scored to the tinkle of tea cups, not the thunder of guns, or the screams of the murdered—but perhaps this is all right. Marai was a bourgeois novelist, he is interested in class distinctions, his sympathy lies with those who have inherited wealth, not with those who are trying to overturn the social order. He is not exactly reactionary—that would mean something quite different and more savage in Hungary—but nostalgic, for a country that has been destroyed by war, for a culture that has been uprooted by a revolution imposed by Stalin, for a language that hardly anyone else speaks and a world that looks back toward Franz Joseph and looks forward to extinction, a world of politeness, “culture,” and solid values. Peter’s best friend Lazar, a writer who befriends both Ilona and Judit, and who dies in exile in Rome with Judit caring for him, mourns the destruction of a whole civilization as he goes, a civilization which Márai, who in some ways resembles the world-weary Lazar, has managed to recreate intact in a novel which is so good that, personally, am going to read his other works, and only wonder why I had never read him before.

I don’t think anybody is writing novels like this today. A pity?

—Michael Korda, Contributor

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When the Killing’s Done By T.C. Boyle 372 pages. Viking. $26.95. ()

T.C. Boyle’s Animal Liberators

T.C. Boyle is at his most provocative and entertaining when he is skewering characters afflicted with certainty. When the Killing’s Done is an extended virtuoso riff off one of today’s hot-button issues, a decade-long real-life standoff between animal-rights activists and National Park Service biologists. It’s akin, in Boyle’s work, to the bracingly ironic 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain, in which a “liberal humanist” environmentalist hits an illegal Mexican immigrant while driving along a canyon road in Southern California, disrupting both their lives. In his new novel, he examines both sides of an environmentalist conundrum—the killing off of an alien predator species in order to preserve a native endangered one.

When the Killing’s Done is set in Santa Barbara, where Boyle has lived for many years, and the nearby Channel Islands, dubbed North America’s “Galapagos” because they are home to hundreds of unique species, including a miniature wild fox and dozens of birds. Boyle writes lyrically of the fragile ecosystems of these isolated islands and the sea around them. In several lengthy passages he underscores the role of capricious winds, treacherous seas, mudslides, obscuring fog, and harsh terrain in affecting human fate over the centuries.

Boyle introduces us to his two dogmatic antagonists at a raucous public meeting in Santa Barbara. Alma Boyd Takesue, a self-assured National Park Service biologist, is there to present the plan to clear outside predators from the Channel Islands—rats on Anacapa, feral pigs on Santa Cruz Island. The goal is “restoration, not preservation,” she says.

Her leading opponent, businessman Dave La Joy, is a volatile FPA (For the Protection of Animals) activist with mud-colored dreadlocks whose rage “sweeps upon him like a rogue waves on a flat sea.” Dave interrupts Alma to shout out from the audience that killing any animal is “intolerable, inhumane, and just plain wrong.” As he’s rousted by security guards, he spits out, “I’ll be civil when the killing stops.”

Dave’s ever-escalating battle intensifies from hectoring to guerrilla activities—landing on Anacapa Island with Vitamin K, a possible rat poison antidote; leading a group of young volunteers and a reporter on a perilous hike to bring back images of the slaughtered pigs on Santa Cruz. As his forays and impulsive actions grow ever more dangerous, a sidekick’s sick joke about “snakes on a boat” becomes chillingly prescient. Meanwhile Alma, who shares her Park Service boyfriend’s ethical concerns about human overpopulation, discovers she is pregnant.

With an audacious amalgam of the dead serious and the comic, Boyle holds up a mirror to our unpredictable, irrational, foolish, and too often violent times.

Jane Ciabattari, Contributor

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The Shadow Of What We Were By Luis Sepúlveda Translated by Howard Curtis 160 pages. Europa Editions. $15. ()

The Revolution Must Go On

Near the midpoint of Luis Sepúlveda’s new novella The Shadow of What We Were, a character describes the last century of Chilean political upheaval by quoting The Leopard: ”Everything changes so that everything remains the same.” And like Lampedusa’s seminal work about Italian revolution, this book deals with characters coming to grips with the fact that they can’t control their circumstances as much as they once may have thought, and the small (and large) acts of rebellion they must make in order for their souls to survive in a rapidly changing world.

The story centers around the reunion of three aging anarcho-socialists, who have returned to Chile after 30 years in exile avoiding the Pinochet death squads. They plan to commit a symbolic act of burglary to recapture some of the glory of their militant youth, which they spent at work under Salvador Allende toward the creation of a more perfect society. The scheme relies on the assistance of a specialist they call The Shadow, a repository of insurgent guile and know-how, who embodies the guerrilla spirit they regret losing, but when he dies tragi-comically en route to the rendezvous, they are forced to improvise with his bumbling replacement.

Time abroad has not healed the wounds these men were dealt as young class-warriors. Writes Sepúlveda, “Their youth had been scattered in hundreds of places, burned by electric prods during interrogations, buried in secret graves that were slowly being discovered, in years of prison, in strange rooms in even stranger countries, in Homeric returns to nowhere, and all that was left were marching songs that nobody sang anymore…” As they reunite, they commiserate over indignities endured; unfaithful wives, failed business ventures, physical and psychological maladies. But worst of all, as we are brought to understand, these are men who, in the autumn of their lives, face the possibility of death without a legacy.

Often in political fiction, authors are tempted to treat their characters as single-faceted heroic ideologues or shallow oppositional straw men, mouthpieces, or targets for political point-making. Consequently, that type of writing can turn very bad very quickly. There is none of that here; these characters are deeply politically motivated, but they are still individuals in their own right, affected by very human motivations like a hatred of chickens or a yearning for companionship. The book is woven inextricably with Chilean and Cold War politics, but that aspect serves only as motivational framework for the plot, and in the end this is a story about a few individual people rather than an entire class of them. In fact, with apologies to Sepúlveda, the book is not about politics so much as it is about aging with attempted grace, and an ignorance of Chilean history will not detract from a fulfilling reading experience.

The characters may not know it, but the changing tides of culture have damaged them as much as those of government. The landscape of the Chile presented here is an entirely contemporary one, populated with Tarantino movies, Google Earth, and rap music imported from the Bronx, and Sepúlveda positions his characters against this backdrop with the bitter humor of the class-conscious. Writes one plotter to another, during an email exchange in which they are discussing how to effectively secure a girlfriend via online-dating websites, “And please don’t write to me using the illiterate grammar the young use. I want complete words, not u for you and that kind of thing.”

Is culture inseparable from politics? Perhaps. Either way, Luis Sepúlveda can toe the line masterfully.

—Nicholas Mancusi, contributor

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