Sándor Márai’s Literary Life After Death

1. Sándor Márai, a famous Hungarian novelist of bourgeois manners, survives Nazi domination despite his opposition to Fascism. In 1942, he publishes Embers—most of it a virtuosic monologue relaying the story of a friendship torn apart by jealousy and resumed in a forlorn castle 41 years later.

2 By 1948, the Soviets consolidate power in Hungary and suppress Márai’s work. That year, he defects to Switzerland and eventually ends up in the U.S. (spending time in New York working for Radio Free Europe). He declares he’ll never publish in Hungary so long as it remains under Soviet domination.

3. Márai spends 41 years in exile, writing prolifically. By the time he’s 88, in 1989, his wife and adopted son have died, leaving him old and isolated in San Diego. One evening, Márai phones the San Diego police and tells them he’s about to kill himself. By the time they get there, he has—nine months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Soviet domination.

4. In the mid-nineties, Italian author-publisher Roberto Calasso finds three Márai novels in a French publisher’s catalogue of reissued “Forgotten European Masters”; he finds them astonishing despite a mangled translation. He buys the rights, and by the late nineties, Embers is a best-seller in Italy, Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere.

5. In 1998, Calasso tells translator and Knopf editor Carol Janeway about Márai. Enthralled by Embers, Janeway translates the novel herself from German and French versions. It sweeps English-language best-seller lists.

6. In 2003, Milos Forman starts work on a movie of Embers with Wynona Ryder and Sean Connery. But after Connery drops out in August, the project seems doomed. Embers manages, however, to earn celeb points after spawning a British radio play starring Patrick Stewart.

7. This month, Knopf publishes its second Márai novel, Casanova in Bolzano. Janeway intends to publish as many of Márai’s 21-odd novels as Mehta will let her. In England, Leopard V: An Island of Sound, a new collection of Hungarian literature, opens with Márai’s description of the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

Sándor Márai’s Literary Life After Death