Subdivided among the three characters’ perspectives, Portraits of a Marriage reads much like a trio of novellas that rely on one another for overall cohesion and meaning. Each character spins their interior monologue in your typical European haunt—a lively cafe or a smoky bar—addressing the reader as one would their company and confidant. First, we meet Ilona, a divorcee who will never forgive her ex-husband’s secret: that he had been in love with his family’s servant, a strong-willed peasant. “The moment we divorced I became his enemy and I remain so, as I will till the day I die,” she admits of her ex, Peter, in the opening pages.
However, what structures Ilona’s discussion of her love life is, ironically, not character, but socio-economic class. Indeed, throughout the novel, class markers prove an inescapable barrier that inevitably result in the interpersonal ruin of each character, institutionally materialized in the dissolution of marriage. Moreover, for each character, Ilona’s adage that “Love is the fiercest kind of selfishness” proves true, as each admits in their confessional monologues.
The natural next character in line, Peter, an industrialist to whom the term “bourgeois” fully defines his every move, both physically and psychologically, illuminates the undeniable truth of the human condition: loneliness. For Peter, loneliness is something every human tries desperately to evade until their twilight hours, when they crave the solitude and silence to whence they shall return. He admits, “We have to put up with loneliness, with being who we are, and we have to do so in silence.”
Lastly, the peasant-servant Judit, the reason for whom the marriage between Ilona and Peter ended in divorce, has the “last word” of the novel. As Judit has traversed the class system from her childhood mice-infested underground hovel, to spending every dime of Peter’s she could get her hands on, she reveals its inherent absurdity, as well as its deterministic pull. As Judit muses, “whatever a man produces in some way produces him.”
For each Ilona, Peter, and Judit, the problem always lies elsewhere and language continues to defer. The past is not to be escaped—from a war-torn Budapest to an adulterous marriage—as the wise priest to whom Ilona confesses observes: “There is no forgetting.” Determinism rules the ontological orientation of the novel, as history imposes, and situations “allow.” Perhaps a critique of the post-war condition abroad, Marai’s male protagonist pegs the world as what “made us what we were.” For Judit, who hoped to be delivered from poverty, who hoped for a new, post-war Budapest, who hoped for a changed Peter, she “woke,” each time, to discover that “nothing had changed.” Perhaps the overarching pessimistic message of the novel is echoed in the words of Peter: “It does no good shaking the foundations of the sagging, sunken, inert structure into which people are born.” As Communist persecution drove Marai from his homeland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this dispossessed author produced a work of post-war ennui.
Portraits of Marriage
Knopf, February 22, 2011