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Sándor Márai: Eszter hagyatéka (Esther’s Inheritance)

Our narrator, Esther, is past forty five, which she considers old. She lives alone with Nunu, an elderly relative, possibly a great-aunt. She had only loved one man in her life, Lajos. She thought he had loved her but he ended up marrying her little sister, Vilma. He never said why and she never understood why but still forgave him as she seems to forgive him all his transgressions.

Now, for some reason, he is planning to visit her. We know what he will do, as she tells us in the second sentence of the book. He is going to rob her. Nunu had warned her: (I will lock away the silver) but she took no notice and anyway the silver was not worth much.

Her view on life is simple: Life has been extraordinarily kind to me, and, just as extraordinarily, it has robbed me of everything. This book sort of explains what she means.

Esther was happy enough when younger. She did not get on with her younger sister, Vilma, but did get on with her older brother, Laci, who preferred her to Vilma. Vilma was always asking her for her things and she usually, albeit reluctantly, gave in.

Laci had left the family and moved to the city. We are not told which one. He had met and befriended Lajos and they had lived together. When Lajos inherited a lot of money, they enjoyed the good life. However, the money soon went. Laci opened a bookshop in the nearby town and continued his life. When Lajos was introduced to the family, they were all impressed. When he started wooing Esther, Laci was jealous and, apparently, so was Vilma.

For some reason, partially explained later, Lajos marries Vilma. He moves into the family house and, effectively, starts stealing from it, taking items as mementos and, as we later learn, stealing money in other ways. Lajos and Vilma had two children a boy, Gabor, and a girl, Eva. Eva was only three when her mother died.

After Vilma’s death, Lajos went away and Esther was left to bring up the children in an apartment where nothing belonged to me and yet everything had been partly stolen from me. When he returned, Esther returned to the house, telling Lajos she wanted nothing more to do with him.

She heard about him, not least because various debt collectors appear. Fortunately, she was helped by two friends, Tibor and Endre, both of whom proposed to her and both of whom she turned down. They sort out her affairs and she and Nunu manage to surive.

Now he turns up again. I want to put everything right he says but we know and Esther knows that it is not true. First thing he does on arrival is to borrow money and that is what he does, from Tibor, to whom he already owes money. Everyone realises that he is out to cheat them but they do not seem to be too concerned. He even admits it. I promise people all kinds of things on the spur of the moment and know, as soon as I tell them, that I will never do what I promised. That’s why I told Vilma I loved her.

We know, Esther knows, Endre, the one man who is never taken in by Lajos, knows, Tibor and Laci know that he is going once again to cheat and steal and lie and, once again, get away with it.

Márai tells this story really well. Throughout the book, we are saying to the characters that they should not trust him, they should send him away, they should have nothing to do with him but, somehow, they fall under his spell.

It was as if we had fallen under the spell of an Indian fakir at work; the fakir had thrown a rope into the air, climbed the rope, and disappeared among the clouds before our very eyes. We were looking at the sky, seeking him there, and were astonished to see that he was taking a bow among us, here on earth, his begging bowl in front of him.

We know the ending from the second sentence. We just do not know the details and Márai fills us in on these very effectively.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian 1939 by Révai Kiadón
First published in English 2008 by Alfred A Knopf
Translated by George Szirtes