‘I don’t know what God has in store for me.’ So opens Sandor Marai’s fourth novel to be translated into English, Esther’s Inheritance. Whatever else, the reader knows that what God has in store will be nothing good: Márai, one of the most popular Hungarian writers of the interwar years, is the master of unfulfilled desires, of secrets betrayed and hopes dashed.
Esther, a middle-aged but not unattractive spinster, lives in genteel poverty with her elderly cousin and companion Nunu in an unspecified small town somewhere in what was once Austria–Hungary. The date is probably the mid-1930s: there are cars, but they are not common. One of Márai’s touches is to cast his characters in a vaguely defined limbo, a backwater where little happens and where the sounds of the world’s chaos arrive late and dimly. The two women, who survive by running their small garden as a business, are expecting a visitor. More than fiction, Esther’s Inheritance reads like theatre, a nineteenth-century Russian play set on a country estate far from Moscow, among people yearning for something they believe might make them happy.
The expected visitor is Lajos, a treacherous, exciting, scheming man in his fifties, who has written to say that, after an absence of twenty years, he wishes to settle unfinished business with them. He also wishes to see his old friend Laci, Esther’s brother, with whom he once enjoyed a