Fiction - paperback; Picador; 148 pages; 2009. Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes.
This novella, first published in 1939, tells the story of a thwarted love affair between Esther, a vibrant young woman, and Lajos, the man who betrayed her by marrying someone else.
Twenty years have passed and Esther has lived a quiet life of solitude with Nunu, the elderly matriarch of the family, in a large house without electricity ("we kept postponing it because of the expense") and a modest garden. Now her peace is shattered when Lajos sends a telegram to say he and four others will be arriving tomorrow for a visit.
When Nunu declares she will lock up the silver, you immediately realise the visit, and Lajos' character, are not particularly welcome.
What follows reads a bit like a stilted play, with characters moving in and out of the spotlight one at a time, all wringing their hands and talking in overtly theatrical ways. It's a slow, subtle read, but it does sneak up on you, albeit almost 100 pages into the story.
The plot contains a series of revelations that I don't want to mention here for obvious reasons, although it's no secret that Lajos is a complete scoundrel who has spent his life treating people as objects to bend at his will (what we call a psychopath today): he has no morals, no conscience and blames others for the errors of his ways. Or, as Esther so aptly puts it:
You are a strange gambler; you play with passions and people instead of cards. I was one of the queens in your hand. Then you stood up and went off elsewhere. Why? Because you grew bored. You had had enough and simply walked away. That's the truth. That is the terrible immoral truth. One can't throw a woman away the way one does a matchbox simply because one has passions, because that happens to be one's nature, because one finds it impossible being tied to a woman or because one is ambitious, or because everything and everyone is merely useful.
The ending is suitably dramatic, although it doesn't exactly spell things out clearly, and it left me wondering about Esther's motivations: was she everything she purports to be?
I think this is one of those books that probably invites a second or third reading to draw out the hidden meanings and to examine more closely the things that people say to one another in order to determine who's lying and who is not.
Of course, it would be remiss of me not to point out that Márai writes rather beautiful prose, such as the following description of the day of Lajos' visit:
Gossamer was drifting between the trees, and the air was sparkling clear without a trace of mist, a thin transparent solution coating everything with the finest enamel, as if all visible objects, including the sky itself, had been touched in the most delicate of brushes.
If you read Esther's Inheritance and like it, I can recommend Stefan Zweig's Journey into the Past, which treads similar territory and was written at about the same time, but is more "readable" in the sense it grips from the word go, rather than being a slow-burner, and is much less histrionic.