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"I am not a poet," Márai insisted. That would seem to settle it, but it has to be remembered that Márai had exceptionally high standards and he was playing with prosody at a time of exceptional fecundity in Hungarian poetry. He was the contemporary of Attila József (considered by some as the greatest of all Hungarian poets), Mihály Babits, Dezső Kosztolányi, Sándor Weöres, Miklós Radnóti, János Pilinszky, poets who are the match of any of the better-known names of the last century such as Auden, Eliot, Celan, Pound, Larkin. 

Márai modestly owned up to having composed some respectable "verse", and despite being primarily a prose writer, he did come up with two of the most popular Hungarian poems, "Funeral Oration" and "Angel from Heaven". So: not a poet, but a writer of poetry. "Funeral Oration" is a hit with both the public and the professors of literature, while "Angel from Heaven" is one of the most recited poems about the crushed 1956 revolution, and very untypical of his oeuvre in its sentimentality (more emotional than most of his work, more emotional than much of his writing about the Second World War, but perhaps because he wasn't there in Budapest in 1956 to witness the carnage). 

Born in 1900 in the Austro-Hungarian town of Kassa (which was to change its name and nationality a few times in the coming decades), Márai committed suicide in San Diego at the age of 88. He rode the 20th century in a way few managed. His first story was published when he was 15, and while still a teenager he experienced world war, epidemic, a revolution and exile. He was in Paris when it was the most exciting city to live in, and in Berlin when it was the place to avoid. He weathered the Second World War in Budapest, and when the Communists came to full power in 1948 he chose exile, including a stint in the most powerful city in the world, New York.

For me Márai is the great Hungarian writer of prose, and I consider even that untranslatable, so I'm glad I didn't have to attempt this job. Márai's relations with his fellow Hungarians were often thorny (it's hard to be an outstanding writer without upsetting people and their pet complacencies), but his love for the Hungarian language never wavered, and he could have had a much easier, more remunerative life if he had switched to German, a language in which he was fluent, also as a writer. 

In addition to the difficulties of language, there is the question of experience. Márai doubted whether anyone who had not been through the ordeal of the Budapest siege in 1944, on which he reflects in Book of Verses — when the Russians and Germans fought over the capital — could understand what it was like (35,000 civilians died). In the poetry, as in his prose, Márai ruminates on the fate of the Hungarians. The interwar period was a time of chest-thumping, heavily brocaded jingoism, but Márai's judgment is always severe, mordant. He chided his fellow citizens for not resisting the Nazis more forcefully, then deplored those Jews who worked as thugs for the Communists. 

"Funeral Oration" is considered Márai's poetic masterpiece. The earliest literary text in Hungarian, from the 12th century, is a brief funeral oration. The first line is "With your very eyes, my brethren, you see what we are" and Márai's appropriation is an attempt to reap Hungarian literature and the experience of the nation, which again and again in its history involved exile or emigration as a result of a failed revolution or military disaster. Hungary's minor involvement in the Nato bombing of Serbia in 1999 was its first successful military endeavour in hundreds of years (and, cruelly, the bombs often fell on ethnic Hungarians in Novi Sad).

Márai packs the country's great creators into "Funeral Oration": Bartók, the painter Rippl-Rónai, the writers Arany, Petőfi, Vörösmarty, Babits and Krúdy, as well as scattering elements of his own life, his flat in Mikó Street. The injunction "Keep Smiling" is in English in the original and is a good example of Márai's style: the slippery simplicity. The words couldn't be simpler, but what does it mean? You get this, reading Márai: you come across a simple phrase or sentence, you digest it, but a few minutes later you're thinking — no, what does he really mean? Keep smiling. Is it ironic? If it is, how ironic is it? Or is it simply the only dignified response to tribulation?

"Angel from Heaven" is one of the most popular Christmas carols in Hungary, and Márai's homonymous poem was written just after the last manifestations of the 1956 revolution were being swept away by Soviet troops and those Hungarian Communists still willing to work for them. Some 200,000 Hungarians fled to the West, while those who stayed faced arrest or worse: hundreds were executed. Márai, like many others, was outraged by the brutality of the Soviets and the inaction of the West.

These two poems contrast with the earlier "Hungarians", one of my favourites, written when Márai was 20 years younger and had a more sardonic view of his compatriots, who have "revolvers in their hands for no reason" and "who are buried at the consulate's expense": the cavalier hussars and hustlers of operetta. Those who know something of Hungary's history and culture will find Márai's verse illuminating, while those who don't can still, I hope, enjoy his artfulness.

Being a Hungarian writer is a hazardous, often lethal job.Hungary's literature is littered with talent who gave up (József, for example, although he had excellent reasons to give up), were butchered, drank themselves away, sullied themselves or just plain, good-old-fashioned sold out. Aside from the permanence of his writing, I admire Márai because of his diamond hardness: he only yielded, finally, when he was old, ill and alone, shooting himself in the head, having first masked himself with a bag, so there would be less mess.

Márai's ashes were scattered in the Pacific, so he has no gravestone. If he did I think this would work: "Sándor Márai, Hungarian writer. 1900-89. Unbowed. Undefeated".

Tibor Fischer

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