Book Review: Sandor Marai's Embers
Hungarian author Sandor Marai’s timeless and eloquent novel about “the truth that lies buried beneath”
‘Embers’ Burn Long
A Hungarian friend of mine snorted at the mention of Embers, Sandor Marai’s eloquent exploration of memory and longing, of love and lost ideals.
"Sentimental drive!" He said, laughing. Just more of the perennial wallowing in nostalgia for Old Empire.
His dismissal is easy enough to understand: if you’ve been a Hungarian in the second part of the 20th century, it makes a lot more sense to look ahead, where you have at least a chance of finding a world that would not keep falling apart out from under you. Even today, 20 years after the fall of communism, corruption, high debt and unemployment have unsettled the country again, sending the body politic reeling off to the right in the April election, putting conservative Viktor Orban back in office.
But the book is more than that: a retired general thinks back over his life as he awaits the visit of Konrad, son of a Hungarian civil servant and Polish mother, who was his bosom friend of a devotion closer to a brother, with whom he had shared school and military service. He, a gentleman, has always been wealthy and, his friend poor, with the soul of an artist. They did everything together, and it was Konrad who introduced him to his childhood friend Krisztina, the woman who would become his wife. It was a world of harmony and perfect communion of spirits across boundaries and culture, of wine and conversation, and a gentle metaphor for civilization lost.
Sandor Marai, born in the Austro-Hungarian city of Kassa (now Kosica, in Slovakia) in 1900 and died at his own hand in 1989, did not have what could be called a happy life. The world he grew up in vanished with the Versailles Treaty in 1919. His family was Saxon; he spent long periods in Frankfurt and Berlin as well as Paris and considered writing in German, in which he was equally comfortable. One is tempted to speculate that his choice for Hungarian may have had as much to do with the sense of being a "man without a country" as for the language itself. He became a writer without a constituency leaving Hungary for good in 1948, to be published in tiny print runs by émigré publishers in London and Toronto.
However he was among the few Hungarian writers who managed to hold on to his integrity through the mid-century decades of upheaval: He was an early and outspoken critic of the Nazis, and according to one contemporary, "would have nothing to do with the communists." In his descriptions of fin de siècle Europe, he portrayed sensibilities reminiscent of Josef Roth, in whose novels the rents and tears to individual lives are inseparable from the unraveling of the civilizations around them.
And so it unfolds in Marai’s novel, as one day, after dinner, Konrad walks out the door and out of their lives, going abroad without explanation. It is Krisztina’s reaction that reveals what has been till then unseen. "The coward," she mutters, on learning Konrad has gone. Thus the General discovers he has been betrayed; he moves into his hunting lodge, and he and his wife never speak again. A few years later she would die. In the 40 years that follow up until the time of the novel, the General struggles to understand what happened and why.
More than anything, this is a novel about self-knowledge, about "the truth, that other truth that lies buried beneath the roles, the costumes, the scenarios of life, [and yet] is nonetheless never forgotten." Years can go by and decades lived, however before it can be found again.
It may be that this is not a young person’s book; it is pretty thin on hope, except the kind remembered long ago in the innocence and optimism of childhood, when we still expected generosity and believed that most people meant us no harm.
"It is the kind of idea that comes later to most people," Marai tells us as the boy is first leaving for boarding school, and true childhood behind forever. "Decades pass, one walks through a darkened room in which someone has died and suddenly one recalls long forgotten words and the roar of the sea. It’s as if those words had captured the whole meaning of life, but afterwards one always talks about something else."
The renewed popularity of Embers may partly be explained by history, by the expansion of the EU to include the lands of the former Empire – the soul that infuses this book is one that is at home in the Central Europe of the Habsburgs, the multi-ethnic agglomeration of languages, cultures and peoples. Perhaps it is now that we can afford to care about this again – that we are letting these feelings in – we are drawing on our collective memory for a way of understanding such a constellation that can help us in the future.
What Marai has done is invite us to join him on an expedition through the thicket which is our fading memory, along the overgrown pathways or the moments of experience that make up our lives, back, deeper and deeper, into the past. He takes us along as he goes hacking his way through nearly impenetrable oblivion to reconnect with ourselves.
By Sandor Marai
Trans: from the German, Die Glut
by Carol Brown Janeway
Piper Verlag 1999
Original Hungarian title:
A gyertyák csonkig égnek,
("The Candles Burn Down to the Stump")
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