The event was close to a record-breaker, with about two hundred participants – not bad for an off-the-beaten track Hungarian novel (and only equaled by Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God).
Sándor Márai’s taut and mesmerizing novel, published in 1942, opens in a secluded Hungarian castle, where an old general awaits a reunion with a friend. It is 1940, and he has not appeared in public for decades. The long-estranged companions talk all night – or rather, the general talks, as the evasive visitor listens to the general discuss love, intimacy, honor, betrayal, and a beautiful, long-dead wife.
The novel is set against the backdrop of the disintegrated Austro-Hungarian empire, and shares the melancholy wisdom of its narrator: “We not only act, talk, think, dream, we also hold our silence about something. All our lives we are silent about who we are, which only we know, and about which we can speak to no one. Yet we know that who we are and what we cannot speak about constitutes the ‘truth.’ We are that about which we hold our silence.”
Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He was joined by renowned author and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English at Stanford, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s Dean for Religious Life at Stanford.
Toby Wolff, Another Look’s founding director, opened by praising the courage of author Márai to sit down and create a remarkable novel about an all-night conversation – two men meet, but only one of them talks, and they persevere till dawn. The end. A daunting creative challenge that Márai pulls off magnificently.
We were happy to see a lively Hungarian contingent in the audience, too – including the Hungarian Consul General for the Bay Area. And boy, did the Hungarians have a different take on the book – they praised Carol Brown Janeway‘s translation, but said that the richness of their native tongue is AWOL. And while Márai is little known west of the Danube, they assured us his books are everywhere in Budapest.