Happy who like Ulysses has explored

The Confessions of a Bourgeois by Sándor Márai. 1934. (Egy Polgár Vallomásai). French title: Les Confessions d’un bourgeois. Not available in English.


Although the title of the book refers to La Confession d’un enfant du siècle by Alfred de Musset, I felt that these verses by Joachim du Bellay suited better to the book. Sándor Márai (1900-1989) is a Hungarian writer and this memoir was published in 1934, which means Márai was still young and had many years to live, which of course he wasn’t aware of. The Confessions of a Bourgeois relate his formative years until he became a writer. The first part covers his fourteen first years until the Great War starts. The second part relates his years from 1919 to 1928 and ends when his father dies.

The first part interested me for the description of his hometown, Kassa. He describes the architecture, the society, the rules, the way of life. There’s a fantastic passage about servants in the Hungarian bourgeoisie and I intend to come by to it when I read Anna Edes. He pictures a society where Catholic and Jews live at peace, where people speak both German and Hungarian. Márai was born in a family from the small bourgeoisie. His father was a lawyer and he built a successful career. Márai had a strict education with every component of what was considered as good education: high school + French + English + piano. He portrays his extended family, showing the most colourful characters, some wealthier than others. Later, he was miserable in his boarding school in Budapest.

Mes ambitions me liaient à la famille et celle-ci appartenait corps et âme à une classe. Tout ce qui se trouvait en dehors de cette famille et de cette classe –hommes, femmes, intérêts ou relations—n’était que matière informe, brute, impure, assimilable aux déchets. Même à l’église, les pauvres étaient considérés comme des malades responsables de leur état, car ils n’avaient pas sur maîtriser leur vie. My ambitions were linked to my family which belonged heart and soul to a certain social class. Everything that was out of the realm of this family and this social class –men, women, interests, connections—were only made of an undefined, gross and impure clay comparable to trash. Even in church, the poor were considered as sick people responsible for their circumstances because they didn’t manage to shape their lives.

marai_confessionsAfter high school, he went to university in Leipzig. This is the starting point of a decade of living abroad. He lived in Leipzig, Frankfurt, Berlin and then six years in Paris, interrupted by months in Florence and frequent visits to London. He wants to discover “Europe” and in his mind, Western Europe means France and Great Britain. What did he do during these years? He wrote articles for different newspapers, especially for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung, lived hand to mouth and went from one rented room to the other. He mingled into all kinds of circles. He went to class but never actually got a diploma. He wandered, dreamed, drank and contemplated life.

There are fascinating passages about Berlin in the early 1920s, insight about the French society in the 1920s. (Some observations match with what Edith Wharton wrote in French Ways and their Meaning.) During that time, he got married with Lola, a woman from Kassa who was also in Berlin. These ten years are the decade during which he matures into a writer. He stores – consciously or not – material for future books.

Then, he eventually decided it was time for him to go home, not in Kassa, but in Budapest. He wanted to come back to his culture, but more importantly, to his language. He didn’t think that a writer could fully express themselves in another language than their mother tongue. (More of that in an upcoming billet) Hence the du Bellay reference.

What did I think of this memoir? First, a word about the translation. My French copy was translated by Georges Kassai and Zéno Bianu. I found it annoying because of the extensive use of quotation marks around words. For example:

Je n’avais aucune intention de “faire carrière” et, au fond, je n’attribuais guère d’importance à mes relations avec ce “journal de province” I had no intention to “make a career” and actually, I didn’t care much about my connection with this “provincial newspapers”

Please tell me why we need quotation marks here. Either it’s the right choice of word, either it’s not, and then the French dictionary is thick enough to provide the translator with a better fit. Isn’t making a choice –no matter how imperfect it is—the job of the translator? It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this under Kassai’s pen. This frequent indecision irritated me.

I’m not much into knowing writers through their memoirs or their detailed bios. I bought this because I wanted to read about Hungary at the beginning of the 20thC to illustrate and understand its literature better. Save for the first part, most of the book (almost 600 pages) is set outside of Hungary. I was very disappointed that he totally skipped the Great War’s years and politics in the 1920s. Two sentences about the war (he was mobilized at 18) and not a word about the devastating consequences it had on the Austro-Hungarian empire and thus, on his life. In once sentence, you learn that he can’t go back to Kassa since it’s now in Czechoslovakia. The war made him stateless. Isn’t this a major event? He mentions the fascists when he relates his stay in Florence, he mentions the economic disaster experienced by the German bourgeoisie, the riots in Berlin. But all this is said on a light tone, in the middle of a paragraph, without analysis or personnel assessment of the events. Frustrating, especially when he writer is a journalist.

What does he say, then? He’s self-centred, talks a bit about the characters that cross his life. He was quite a womaniser and never was seriously involved with a woman and suddenly, he’s married. One meeting for tea and a few months later, they’re married. He must have been in love, given his track record with women but he doesn’t say a word about his feelings. It’s called “confessions” but the man himself remains aloof. He neither uses this book to analyse the world he lives in –which Musset did—nor to expose his inner self—which Rousseau did. It’s just his peregrinations, his thoughts about writing, being a writer and his slow process of turning from an adolescent to a man, an author. To be honest, I didn’t like much the man half revealed in this book. I want to read one of his novels now, to see how this mildly interesting man was as a writer.

What happened to him later? The fled from Hungary in 1948, lived in different European countries and eventually settled for the rest of his life in San Diego, California. He only wrote in Hungarian.

Here’s one last quote:

Mais dans les instants privilégiés de notre existence, une explosion assourdissante –le pianissimo du silence équivaut quelquefois au fortissimo d’une déflagration—nous avertit que nous nous sommes trompés de chemin, que nous n’habitons pas là où nous voudrions vivre, que nous n’exerçons pas le métier pour lequel nous sommes faits, que nous recherchons les faveurs et suscitons la colère de personnes avec lesquels nous n’avons pas grand-chose en commun, alors que nous traitons avec indifférence celles qui nous importent vraiment. Si l’on reste sourd à ce genre d’avertissement, on risque de passer à côté de la vie, de passer une existence mutilée et superficielle. Il ne s’agit nullement d’un rêve, fût-il diurne, mais d’une sorte d’illumination qui nous révèle notre réalité profonde, nos obligations, nos engagements et notre destinée personnelle –tout ce qui, au-delà de la misère échue à la condition humaine, nous appartient en propre. But during the precious moments of our existence, a deafening explosion—the pianissimo of a silence sometimes equals the fortissimo of a blow—warns us that we have taken the wrong path, that we don’t live where we’d like to, that we don’t have the profession we are meant for, that we seek the favours and raise the anger of people with whom we have barely anything in common while we treat with indifference the ones who really matter. If one remains deaf to that kind of warning, one risks to miss out on life, to live a mutilated and shallow existence. It has nothing to do with a dream, even diurnal. It is a sort of enlightenment which reveals us our true reality, our obligations, our commitments and our personal destiny, everything that belongs to us, above the misery inherent to the human condition.

Here’s another review by Passage à l’Est.

  1. August 19, 2013 at 1:55 am

    I read Embers by this author. I’d read many raves reviews about it, but I found it ok-not much more. As for the novel itself, IMO it was a storm in a teacup scenario. I have another of his titles on my shelf but haven’t got to it.


    • August 19, 2013 at 10:41 pm

      Since I trust your reading tastes, I’ll try another one.


  2. August 19, 2013 at 4:25 am

    That is a bold critical move. changing the book’s title. Good idea. Any excuse to bring up Joachim du Bellay – what a poet.


    • August 19, 2013 at 10:51 pm

      You know I don’t think I write “critical” billets, I would need a strong academic background in literature to do that, and I don’t have it.
      It’s just my response to the book. He mentions capital things “en passant” (I don’t know how to say that in English) For example, at a moment he will drop a sentence saying that at this time he was used to drinking heavily, starting at breakfast. That’s being an alcoholic, in my book. He had never mentioned before any of the effects of this habit. Nothing about being drunk, addicted, buying alcohol instead of food or explaining why he needed it. I never suspected he was a drinker before he dropped this sentence and I had already read a great deal of the book. That bothered me and episodes like this repeat several times in the book. What kind of a confession is that? The kind of edited confession you reserve for a priest when you go there reluctantly after someone obliged you to go.


  3. August 19, 2013 at 8:29 am

    Nice review, Emma. Sandor Marai’s name rings a bell (I correctly guessed that he was Hungarian – I am so happy!) but I haven’t read any book of his. Sorry to know that you didn’t like this book as much as you had expected to. I liked very much your comparison of his book with that of Musset and Rousseau. From your review, it looks like Marai was an aloof character who brushed away the important happenings of his time in this book, even if they were personal ones like how he met his wife and how they fell in love. I loved that last paragraph that you have quoted, especially this part – “we seek the favours and raise the anger of people with whom we have barely anything in common while we treat with indifference the ones who really matter.” Thanks for this interesting review. Hope you like Marai’s novels better.


    • August 19, 2013 at 10:54 pm

      Thanks Vishy. The sentences as the last quotes are the reason why I kept reading the book. There are good things in this memoirs but it was not what I expected.


  4. August 19, 2013 at 8:51 am

    I’ve read Embers as well and have some of his other books but not this one.
    I understand why he didn’t write about the war. Too ugly for him, I suppose. And maybe traumatic. I’m not sure this is a memoir that would interest me, on the other hand I really like the last quote.


    • August 19, 2013 at 10:57 pm

      Did you like Embers?
      I thought he didn’t want to write about the war. He could have simply told what happened to his family and what it was like to be a teenager in Budapest during these years.
      There are interesting thoughts about literature even if I didn’t agree with everything. (See next billet)


      • August 20, 2013 at 10:21 am

        I did like Embers well enough but I didn’t love it. It felt as if I was reading something I had read before. When it was rediscovered in Germany a while back they sold it as if it was one of the best books ever written. That raised the bar so high, obviously I was a bit disappointed. He’s extremely liked in Germany and I think almost all of his works are available in translation but I wasn’t tempted to read more.


        • August 20, 2013 at 8:43 pm

          First Guy, now you. I’m definitely trying another one.
          I’ve read that Albin Michel started to translate him into French in the 1990s and then other European publishers followed. Several of his books are available in French.


  5. August 20, 2013 at 7:01 am

    I wonder why Márai omitted so many seemingly crucial aspects of his life. Perhaps one can gleam important insights about him by studying the pieces that he left out.


    • August 20, 2013 at 8:40 pm

      On the French Wikipedia, they say he went studying in Germany because he had been writing “subversive” texts in Budapest. The authorities were a bit after him. Perhaps he cut off all political comments to avoid problems just when he started living in Budapest again.
      Still, he doesn’t explain why he didn’t write more about himself or his wife.


  6. August 21, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    En passant = in passing. It’s the same.

    I have his The Rebels, thankfully reading the comments not his Embers, which is very famous. Reading this I think I’ll skip the memoirs.

    Paul Morand skips the second world war in his memoirs, titled Venices. That though is because he was on the wrong side, which subsequently provided a tad embarrassing.


    • August 21, 2013 at 10:18 pm

      Thanks for the “in passing”
      I can understand why Morand didn’t want to write about WWII.
      In this case, I don’t know why he chose to ignore important events or major experiences. Is it because the people related to the events were still alive? It’s not said and as always my French edition doesn’t have any foreword or afterword. It’s frustrating in this case.
      There’s no English translation of his memoirs, so you won’t stumble upon this book.


  1. May 30, 2014 at 11:14 pm
  2. July 31, 2014 at 9:58 pm

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