Sándor Márai

Sándor Márai was born in the city of Kassa in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now in Slovakia) on April 11, 1900, in a Hungarian family of German lineage. His father, Géza Grosschmid, was a jurist and after World War I, he was Kassa’s elected representative in the Czechoslovak legislature. Márai studied in Kassa, Eperjes and Budapest. After secondary school, he enrolled at Péter Pázmány University to study literature and the humanities and began to publish literary criticism and poems. The end of World War I ushered in a difficult period in Hungarian history. The 1918 Peace Treaty of Versailles reduced Hungary’s territories by about two thirds. Its Northern region where Kassa was located was annexed by the newly formed state of Czechoslovakia. First a center left republican government took power and then a short-lived Communist dictatorship ruled the country. The forces that defeated the Communists installed a counterrevolutionary and anti-Semitic government. In 1919, Márai left the country and continued his career in journalism in Germany. In 1923, he married Lola Matzner and moved to Paris. By then he was a correspondent to several German and Hungarian newspapers and a novelist and poet of growing reputation. He traveled all over Europe and in the Middle East dispatching travelogues and essays. In 1934, he and his wife moved back to Hungary and settled in Budapest. In that year he published The Confessions of a Bourgeois (Egy polgár vallomásai), the recollections of his youth, which has remained one of his best loved masterpieces. By then, he was one of the most successful writers and public intellectuals in Hungary. In the 1940s, he started to publish plays that were staged by the most prominent theatres. In 1943, he was elected into the Hungarian Academy. In 1943, he began to write diaries. His memoirs and diaries are true gems of Hungarian literature. Between 1928 and 1948, Márai published 39 volumes of novels, short stories, essays and poems.

During World War II, Márai was a staunch anti-Fascist and used his pen and prestige to resist National Socialism. By the mid-1940s, Márai was considered and revered by many not just as a popular writer, but also as the main spokesman for Hungarian bourgeois humanism and the educated Hungarian middle class, a paragon of civic values, a man of integrity, vast cultural knowledge and erudition. In 1948, the rapidly forming new Communist system unleashed a series of vicious attacks on Márai, and the writer, who stood up both against Fascism and Communism, had to leave the country. Upon his departure he took the oath never to return as long as Soviet troops occupy the land. He was promptly expelled from the Academy. From 1948 to 1950, Márai lived in Switzerland and then he moved to Italy. In 1952, he settled in New York and became a US citizen in 1957. After his forced emigration, Márai was one of the intellectual leaders of Hungarians resisting Communism. He continued to write in Hungarian. His 1951 poem, the Sermon for the Dead (Halotti Beszéd), was read and performed as the unofficial anthem of Hungarians who were forced to flee their motherland. From 1951 for 16 years, he worked for Radio Free Europe. Hungarians in Hungary and all over the world listened to his radio program with the title Sunday Letters, every Sunday.

In 1980, following his adopted son, János, Márai moved to San Diego with his wife Lola. They settled here and the writer spent his last decade in our city, renting an apartment at 2820 Sixth Avenue, taking daily walks in Balboa Park. He wrote his last works in San Diego. In his diaries, published after his death, he depicted with great affection the natural beauty of San Diego and Balboa Park in particular. He chronicled the opening of the new Old Globe Theatre in 1982, gave little snapshots of everyday life in Balboa Park: handicapped people sitting in a café, old man walking with a metal detector looking for some mysterious object, the birds he fed on the lawn, Mexican homeless sleeping in the park. He died on February 21, 1989, the year before the Communist government of Hungary was ousted and two years before the last Soviet troops left the country. A few months after his death, Márai was awarded the highest literary award in Hungary, the Kossuth Prize, and was posthumously reinstated in the Hungarian Academy.

After his death, Márai became the hero of newly liberated Hungary. His works emerged as the beacon for its transition from Communist dictatorship to capitalist democracy. His literary fame soon spread to the rest of the world. His works are translated into several languages, including, German, Spanish, Italian, French, English (languages, the polyglot Márai spoke), Finnish, Czech, Danish, and Swedish. His 1942 novel, Embers (A gyetyák csonkig égnek), a gripping story about two men, once best friends, meeting after 41 years, an unadorned, brooding, lyrical mediation on a world that had been irreversibly lost, has been an international bestseller. A movie version is currently being shot by Milos Forman, featuring Sean Connery, Klaus Maria Brandauer and Winona Ryder.

A passage from Márai’s San Diego diary reads:

“Winter. Tame, without the taste and scent of winter. The sunsets are like nowhere else: carmine red dusks. The reflection of the Pacific Ocean in the infinity of the Western firmament. In everything, in water and in the sky, what is near is infinite.”

Prepared by: Ákos Róna-Tas

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