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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Esther's Inheritance

Márai Sándor

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To purchase Esther's Inheritance

Title: Esther's Inheritance
Author: Márai Sándor
Genre: Novel
Written: 1939 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 148 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Esther's Inheritance - US
Esther's Inheritance - UK
Esther's Inheritance - Canada
L'Héritage d'Esther - France
Das Vermächtnis der Eszter - Deutschland
  • Hungarian title: Eszter hagyatéka
  • Translated by George Szirtes
  • Eszter hagyatéka was made into a film in 2008, directed by Sipos József

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Our Assessment:

B : ultra-melodramatic character studies from another age

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 12-1/2009 Ross Benjamin
Financial Times . 2/2/2009 Melissa McClements
Financial Times . 16/11/2009 James Urquhart
FAZ . 26/10/2000 Sabine Brandt
The Guardian . 31/1/2009 Maya Jaggi
The Independent . 9/2/2009 Paul Bailey
The LA Times . 4/1/2009 Richard Eder
The NY Rev. of Books . 20/12/2001 J.M.Coetzee
The Observer . 15/11/2009 Imogen Carter
The Telegraph . 30/12/2008 Tibor Fischer
Die Welt . 2/9/2000 Werner Fuld
Die Zeit . 14/9/2000 Klaus Harpprecht

  From the Reviews:
  • "Szirtes’s most recent offering from Márai’s voluminous oeuvre, Esther’s Inheritance (1939), lends greater insight into the novelist’s aesthetic of the cliché, his use of formulaic scenarios, inherited themes, and stock characters to exemplify life as theater. Narrated by the eponymous protagonist, a middle-aged woman living in humble circumstances, the novel conveys Márai’s theatrical sensibility with brevity and straightforwardness." - Ross Benjamin, Bookforum

  • "The writing is taut and the atmosphere of suspense carefully constructed, but this story is very much of its time." - Melissa McClements, Financial Times

  • "Márai’s prose is dignified and measured but his climactic exchanges on the nature of responsibility add little substance to this slight, melancholy novella." - James Urquhart, Financial Times

  • "Es ist zum Staunen, daß eine Geschichte, mit deren Einzelheiten moderne Leser sich kaum recht identifizieren können, einen so starken Eindruck hinterläßt. Ein großes Maß dieser Wirkung rührt vom Stil her, der elegant ist, aber nicht kühl, detailfreudig, aber nie geschwätzig" - Sabine Brandt, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Bound within Esther's narrative, the novella is strangely enigmatic. There is a curious inevitability in the heroine's readiness to be taken in again. The recurrent images are of theatricality, fakery and role-playing. (...) Márai's novella offers the naked spectacle of the strong-willed subduing the weaker-willed, for all the complex goodness of the latter and transparent falsity of the former." - Maya Jaggi, The Guardian

  • "This novella is not an exercise in nostalgia; the family secrets it uncovers are too painful. (...) She ought to loathe him, but draws back in the face of his charm. Good novelists respect such mysteries, presenting them and giving the reader the opportunity for speculation. George Szirtes's translation reads well apart from occasional jarring Americanisms, which I suspect were inflicted by the publisher." - Paul Bailey, The Independent

  • "Its power builds, though, culminating as they do in climactic dialogues and a reversal that turns it on its head. On our head too, even though what Márai reveals he has hidden in plain sight." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Lajos is reminiscent of Prospero with his masterful stage-management, while Márai's love-struck spinster, and the friends who attempt to save her, intrigue and frustrate much like a Chekhov cast." - Imogen Carter, The Observer

  • "The harried Lajos, as suspected, has come to pillage, but he makes off with the little that Esther has left in a way that will surprise (and perhaps not convince everyone). Esther’s Inheritance, like Embers, is about a love triangle and the dictates of character." - Tibor Fischer, The Telegraph

  • "Ein dummer Schluss. Und leider steht das Ende schon auf der ersten Seite, so dass der Leser allenfalls noch von der Dummheit, aber nicht mehr vom Schluss überrascht wird." - Werner Fuld, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       There doesn't seem to be that much suspense at the beginning of Esther's Inheritance . The narrator, Esther, is a spinster in her mid-40s, and she explains straight off that this will be an account of:

what happened the day Lajos visited me for the last time and robbed me.
       She notes that she has waited three years to record these events -- which tells us a little about what has (and hasn't) happened in that time -- but otherwise the focus is on that day, and all the older memories and events it brings up.
       Esther lives with Nunu, pretty much the last of the family line. Nunu is: "the family member who "stands in" for all the other family member in the house" -- only there aren't any left. The two women live in somewhat humble circumstances but decent comfort; they are pretty old-fashioned, however: the house still hasn't been wired for electricity.
       Twenty years earlier Lajos, the love of Esther's life, married her sister, Vilma, who has since passed away. On this fateful day Lajos has announced he will be visiting, with the kids and assorted other company.
       Lajos is the ultimate ne'er-do-well
Everything he touches instantly becomes a fake. And his breath, it's like the plague
       He's done well, at times, but for the most part his life has been a trainwreck; unfortunately, most of the damage has been of the collateral sort. He rarely faces the past, instead barreling on ahead elsewhere, so it's somewhat of a surprise that:
He is coming here, where -- and why should we pussyfoot around the issue ? -- he was indebted to everyone in some way, with money, with promises, with oaths !
       But he's the kind of guy who can sweet-talk anyone into anything, and talk his way out of pretty much any problem. And Esther still carries a torch for him, even though he's such a cad, and they're such a mismatched couple. But his amorality is beguiling, even to Esther. As Lajos himself tells her:
There are people who are more adept at moral character, yes indeed, there are moral geniuses just as there are musical and literary geniuses. You are such a moral genius, Esther; no, please don't deny it. I feel it in you. I am tone-deaf when it comes to issues of morality, practically illiterate.
       No one is able to withstand his sleazy charm, and despite the knowledge, all around, that it can only spell disaster, fate demands that they play this terrible day out:
I knew that I still had no clue about life, about my own life and the lives of others, and it was only through Lajos that I could learn the truth -- yes, through the liar, Lajos. The garden was filling up with acquaintances. A car was sounding its horn somewhere. Suddenly I felt a great calm descend on me: I knew Lajos had come because he had no choice, and that we were welcoming him because we had no choice, and the whole thing was as terrifying, as unpleasant, and as unavoidable for him as it was for us.
       Márai is reasonably successful in presenting this absurd premise: on the face of it you'd think that no one would want to have anything to do with this bum, but family dynamics and that peculiar personal charm make Lajos' hold over everyone nearly convincing.
       Still, the inevitability of what is to come is pretty hard to take, and Esther's willingness to go along with it frustrating. Márai has some clever twists: there's a ring, which Lajos gave to Esther after his wife died ("in a moment of high pathos" -- as if that didn't describe every moment of their lives ...), but which she intended to pass on to Lajos' daughter, Éva. That suddenly causes a variety of complications. Then there are those letters Lajos wrote to Esther on the eve of his marriage to Vilma -- letters which she had never seen. As to what Lajos has come for, well, he's come for it all. In part, Esther hopes that means her as well: she obviously harbours deep feelings for the little rat. But deep down she knows exactly how this is all going to end, and that certainly won't include her and Lajos riding happily into the sunset .
       Esther's Inheritance drips with atmosphere and destiny. Everyone acts just like everyone expects them to act, from Lajos asking for a twenty to give the driver as soon as he arrives ("I have no change") to Esther giving in to Lajos' entreaties, despite the fact that she knows it will destroy everything she has. Esther knows she's doomed, and she plays her part accordingly, unable to fight fate if it means turning away Lajos -- even as she knows he'll abandon her just as quickly as he always has as soon as he gets what he needs. If it weren't such a silly tale it would be tragic (and possibly it's meant to be).
       Márai does do the characters well, right down to the locals who quietly support Esther and would have offered alternatives to Lajos. Even Lajos' seductive charm is almost convincing, though it is somewhat hard to credit that one of his creditors doesn't just bash the bum's head in when he waves away yet another twenty-year-old debt. But the real reason that it works is because Lajos also has become a semi-tragic figure; he may not deserve sympathy, but events have led to a situation where it's even harder than usual to ignore his pleas (not that anyone was ignoring them before).
       Esther's actions are somewhat annoying, because her sacrifices seem unnecessary; sure, she's in the thrall of Lajos, but what she does amounts to suicide (as was clear on page one, where, three years after that day, she notes: "soon I must die"). But she is unable to live in the present -- hence no electricity in the house, a ridiculous anachronism by the 1930s -- and since there's little past for her to cling to either there's really nothing left for her. Both Márai and Lajos seem to have no problem with (indirectly, of course) offing the old maid.
       The fun of a Márai novel is in that old-world atmosphere and his characters. There's a rich central cast here, and the book drips with atmosphere, and even if the overarching fatalism can be frustrating Márai still turns out a decent if fairly trivial entertainment.

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Esther's Inheritance: Reviews: Eszter hagyatéka - the film: Marai Sandor: Other books by Márai Sándor under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Márai Sándor (1900-1989) was a leading author in Hungary in the 1930s but under the Communists his work fell into utter oblivion. He left Hungary in 1948, first for Italy, then the US, where he eventually committed suicide.

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© 2008-2009 the complete review

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