Leading a book group discussion on Sándor Márai’s The Rebels, one is faced with an interesting dilemma, one to which Arthur Phillips politely alluded to in his excellent New Yorker review. To begin, he told us:
Sándor Márai keeps getting younger. Twelve years after he committed suicide, in 1989, at the age of eighty-nine, Knopf published the first American edition of his novel Embers, which had originally appeared in Hungary when he was forty-two. That launched Márai’s career in this country. Three years later came Casanova in Bolzano, written when he was forty. Now, courtesy of George Szirtes, we have the first English translation of The Rebels (Knopf; $24.95), Márai’s fourth novel, published when he was only thirty.
A bit further on, he delivers this judgment:
By 1942, with Embers, Márai had achieved an individual style. That novel—with its long, swirling monologues, its psychological depth, its examination of the layered meanings in a single, long-ago betrayal—is unique, inimitable. Back in 1930, though, he was still writing books that were merely very, very good.
I agree with Phillips, and reading Márai has been something of an unusual phenomenon—one I plan to discuss with all three of our discussion guests, including Phillips himself—namely, that, unlike watching the career of a young novelist unfolding in linear, real time, American readers got Márai’s strongest effort first. If you’ve read Embers—and if you haven’t, what are you doing reading this? Go, go, go!—you’ll likely agree with Phillips’s and my sense that it’s a remarkable work, whereas in The Rebels, we have the young writer finding his way. I don’t know about you, but I feel all turned around. One wonders, therefore, how much, if any attention should publishers pay to the order in which they bring out a writer’s translations?
Incidentally, I note here—and will return to this point in detail in a few weeks—that the great J.M. Coetzee disagrees with us both on Márai’s merits, more or less writing him off in the New York Review of Books: í… his conception of the novel form was nevertheless old-fashioned, his grasp of its potentialities limited, and his achievements in the medium consequently slight.ë Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll have a chance to determine into which of these two camps you fall. Perhaps I’ll even persuade you that Márai’s resolute old-fashioned-ness is precisely what makes him attractive in this tricked out post-pomo age.
As for the book itself. The central events of The Rebels—ably chronicled in Phillips’s fine review—concern themselves with a group of four friends—Ábel, Béla, Ern, and Tibor—on the eve of their transition from childhood to adulthood. School is finished, the First World War, in its dying stages, awaits them. And so to contend with the terrors of what they face, they begin, in the parlance of modern child therapists, íacting out.ë Petty thefts and outré behavior begin to take up their final days of summer until events come to a dramatic—even melodramatic—end. On the presumption that some of you will pick up this book and read along, I’ll save plot specifics for a little later on.
What I will talk about is how wonderful Márai is on the relationships between boys and their fathers. In the European tradition, especially, the male bond is one of strength, discipline, fear and respect. There’s something wonderfully intimidating about a European father that is hard to explain but consider this passage:
In the evening, his father played the violin. He played the violin every night and no one was allowed into the room while he was playing. After supper he would retreat into his room and spend an hour wrestling with the obstinate, rebellious instrument, conjuring a set of tortured sounds from it. His father had never been taught the violin and some kind of shyness and embarrassment prevented him from taking lessons now. His playing was riddled with errors, and entailed, or so the boy felt, a kind of bad faith. He himself knew his efforts were a hopeless, obstinate experiment, and he couldn’t bear it if anyone made a pointed remark about it in his presence. Nevertheless the tortured sounds of his violin filled the house. The awareness of his father’s increasing embitterment as night after night, alone in his room, he struggled with the instrument, made him feel as if his father were engaged in some ugly, shameful habit in the solitude of his room while being overheard by the other gleefully malevolent dwellers in the house. At such times he too would lock himself in his room, sitting in the dark, his hands over his ears, biting his lips, staring and waiting. It was as if his father were doing something low and treacherous.
What a true moment that is, how like a young boy to think of his father’s playing as “bad faith” in that age where we have no sympathy for the failings of our elders. And yet, I also note that the sentence beginning “The awareness of his father’s” tails and spins ungainly out of control. You’ll see this a lot in The Rebels—moments of genuine truth and beauty coming up against a young writer still finding his way.
When I return, I’ll offer up a brief biography of Márai, along with a collection of some Márai resources around the web, to help you better understand how this novel is so clearly the product of an age.
Finally, there’s a reality to online book clubs—most of you haven’t read this book. Surely, some will as the month unfolds but many will not and I hope to keep you all involved in the discussion by incorporating questions that allow you to bring your own reading experiences to the table. I’ll try to end as many posts as possible with such a question, and today I am left wanting to further contemplate literary fathers. If you’d like to talk about the role of the father in the coming of age tale; of literary fathers who have left an impression; or about the apparent timelessness of the conflict between fathers and sons, I hope you’ll make use of the comments box below.