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Embers by Sandor Marai
Perhaps I should start by saying that I came across this book accidentally, that I picked it up for free from a stack of books that holidaymakers had left in a little library for anyone to take. It had an interesting blurb, but I wasn't expecting too much. I had already read some really great books this summer, like The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands, Colours of Magic by Terry Pratchett, Frank Herbert's Dune and so on. I opened this book with mild curiosity rather than hoping it would eclipse other novels I have read that I already know have profoundly affected me. I was engaged immediately by the interesting setting of two old men talking in a castle, meeting after over 40 years since a rift separated their paths. What drew me in was wonder at how the author could erect enough suspense and intriguing dialogue to create a 250-page novel for which the narrative was largely constructed between just two characters and in one location. The Observer review describes "Embers" perceptively, with great promise of a fine read: "Elegiac, sombre, musical and gripping. An immensely wise book." Did I agree? I think I could talk about this book at length in the way I feel it both captivated me and disappointed simultaneously, with fleeting moments of insight juxtaposed against a haunting futility in my fervent race to reach the end. I hate it when a book is a drudge and you keep checking how long the chapters are and how you can effectively play your concentration level against efficient comprehension. There are so many books in the world, you may as well read the ones that challenge your nature as a working, rational human machine and illuminate your literate nature with all the splendour it deserves. Having said that, I carried on anyway. I just felt an instinctive need to complete it, though slow in places.
In brief, the story follows, as I mentioned, a man named Henrik, who is a retired general in his 70s who has been stewing over the absence of the best friend of his childhood and the fraught relationship and events that led to their dispersion from each other. Immediately you are immersed in the darkness of the tale: the foreboding pathetic fallacy of the general's manor home in Hungary and the gloomy imagery of a home too big for its lonesome occupant. You sense immediately that Henrik has a slightly cold demeanour, an entirely understandable consequence of years of solitude. He has isolated himself in his room, in one particular wing of his castle with little communication with others apart from his nurse, Nini, a character of ancient and serene charm that seems to burn an eternal resonance in the heart of both the reader and for Henrik. She provides a window through which life views and consciousness become quietly released in the dialogue from Henrik, uncovering a greater depth of character than first thought.
Without revealing too much of the plot sequence, you understand early on that the relationship between Henrik and the guest, his old friend Konrad, has been marred by events surrounding his wife, Krisztina. She has been dead for many years prior to this meeting. What I really enjoyed though, is the way that Marai had focused very much on exploring aspects of character difference between Konrad and Henrik and how this affected their ability to connect with each other and bond without pretence. Henrik speaks of how Konrad's contrasting world of perception prohibited the potential for unconditional, unspoken assertions of friendship or forgiveness. Konrad, for instance is developed as a character who is free-thinking, passionate and loves music. He sought music as solace, as his consolation and relief for being born into a world of mannish pride, of principles of duty and service in the desensitised, militarised high-class society of Hungary during the 1940s (or indeed of anywhere else involved in the war at this time). Henrik's admits to lacking understanding for Konrad's view of life and it is articulated so well in striking and insightful prose:
"His voice rises, and for the first time this evening he speaks with a hoarse intensity. "I hate this incomprehensible, melodious language which select people can understand and use to say uninhibited, irregular things that are also probably indecent and immoral. Watch their faces and see how strangely they change when they're listening to music."
There is a noticeable similarity in the way Marai develops characters to be quite generalized into two groups: the free-thinkers and the weak, meek 'others' who conform to society impositions in exchange for comfort and ease of living, with Fyordor Dostoyevsky's work. In the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky employs a similar lumping of those who respond to music with abandon and those who seek traditionalism and conformity together and very much apart. Thus, Konrad, to me, is the likeable character of the book, even though he says little and has an air of darkness that you feel is almost cruel and brutal.
It is this kind of articulation on the philosophies of life that I find really engaging in this book. There is a particular passage on old age that I find moving, poetic and so poignant that I was completely awed by Marai's ability to eloquently express such apparent truths. The narrative focuses on the viewpoint of Henrik, who is serving dinner and talking to Konrad to set himself at ease as a reprieve from the years he has overanalyzed himself, Konrad, his life, his affectations, his wrongdoings, rightdoings and so forth. The book does manage to hold together a nice flow, a great control of imagery in the right places at the right time. If the past is delved into, there is always a sense of the imminent present. I just love the power he gives psychological insights with his impressive style:
"The human night is filled with the crouching forms of dreams, desires, vanities, self-interest, mad love, envy, and the thirst for revenge, as the desert night conceals the puma, the hawk and the jackal. It is the moment when it is neither night nor day in man's heart, because the wild beasts have slunk out of the hidden corners of our souls, and something rouses itself, transmits itself from mind to hand, something we thought we had tamed and trained to obedience over the course of years, decades even. In vain, we have lied to ourselves about the significance of this feeling, but it has proved stronger than all our intentions, indissolvable, unrelenting. Every human relationship has a tangible core, and we can think about it, analyze it all we want, it is unchangeable."
What do I not like about the book? Well, for all its wondrous prose, I definitely found that it never quite developed, in terms of plot, as I would have liked. I understand that the book attempts to engage in a sombre discussion of human nature rather than having all the twists and turns of some kind of action novel, but it definitely lacks something. I feel an affinity with Konrad and I dislike the character of Henrik (which is not a criticism of the story, I like that I feel this way), but I think the book could have teased out different angles and viewpoints. It is the raw, outpourings of a man who has thought about the conversation he is going to have with the friend who became his enemy, but in this way the novel begins to hold some of that contrived predictability in quite a negative way, just as you feel Henrik does. You know what is going to happen, really. The imagery holds you engaged and it is certainly readable, but it just seems like writing about emptiness and regret has somewhat flattened the author's enthusiasm for life too. Though that is just my interpretation.
That said, it is a beautiful novel, I can't doubt that. Marai is masterful in his use of language and there is a definite legacy left by completing it.
The book becoming recognised is quite a novel in itself: he was a celebrated Hungarian author in the 1930s but was persecuted by the Communists after they came to power and as a result his books were suppressed and destroyed, forcing him to flee his country. Embers was reprinted long after its original release to become the bestseller that it is today.
Paperback: 224 pages
Language: English (translated by Carol Brown Janeway)
I was fortunate enough to come across 'Embers' at a ridiculously low price in a book sale and having had my appetite for foreign writers whetted by Italo Calvino's 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveller', I decided to plunge in at the deep end. For fans of the phenomenon that is 'magic realism' this will definitely appeal but, as much as I loved this novel, there is bound to be a voice out there somewhere that will level the accusation that it is pretentious. Incidentally Embers is written with the same prose quality and the same level of erudition that haunts 'Invisible Cities' (Calvino again) but how to approach it with the intention of writing an original review is another matter! On a superficial level, 'Embers' is a novel about the loyalty, Platonic love and the inevitable betrayal of these values that will occur when a woman comes between two men. Henrik is an aristocrat who has chosen to withdraw from the society around him and is awaiting the renewal of a friendship with Konrad, his former companion who he has not seen for some 41 years. As he prepares for Konrad's arrival it becomes apparent that whilst universal time has continued, the temporal status of Henrik's existence is such that he hasn't adjusted from the moment that his faith in those around him was fractured by an act that he can neither explain nor rationalise. Having maintained an unquestionable fidelity to each other there came a point where the modern collided with the old-world and chose to progress rather than remain stoic to its traditions. Henrik's only remaining companion is his nurse, Nini, and it is in this permanent isolation, continued stasis that they choose to remain. The friendship between Konrad and Henrik was borne out of childhood meeting and a military upbringing in which the social deference and economic differences were acknowledged and respected. It is this feudal, hierarchical society that dema
nds a constant awareness of place and an individual's importance but Konrad's inability to adjust to rigid constraints leads him to seek expression through the arts, most notably music. It is worth bearing in mind this is a novel with a context that could be seen as politically stifled and so when Konrad discovers a form of communication that is dangerously free and personal he can break rank from the other soldiers around him. By transgressing the rules of his own military world this poses a threat to the life that Henrik has introduced him to. The opportunity that Henrik offers Konrad reflects the nature of 'Embers'. Although the novel transcends generations it eventually returns to the point at which the decision must be made. Time cannot progress until a resolution has been found, Henrik cannot return to the outside world until he can explain and resolve the problems within his own. It is a matter of duty and honour to his previous generations that Henrik atones for his error in allowing an outsider into the culture and values they created but Konrad must pay his own penance for his decision to put love before friendship. Given that this is a translation I would consider this to be one of the lesser-known gems that will find eventually find its way onto the bookshelves. Although this review has come dangerously close to going over the border between what is informative and what is analytical (review vs essay) this was such an overwhelming novel to read that the only way to try and understand it is to strip away the surface narrative and peer below into what the author seems to be saying. It is a novel about the desire to return to forgotten cultures, about the different levels of love and friendship but it is also the work of a writer whose prose is immaculate and must be sampled to gain the full flavour.
Picture two male friends and a woman spending whole nights together, as one. And then, years later, the two men spend another all-nighter together, without the woman but feeling her presence nonetheless.
No, you have not stumbled into an adult channel review, nor is this my debut in the proposed (or has it materialised?) dooyoo Erotica category. I am talking about one of the most stunning and incredible books I have ever read: EMBERS by Sandor Marai.
I realise that, having just praised to high heavens another recent read, "Back Roads", I'm enthusing about too many books recently - but that makes a pleasant change, actually, from the too many disappointing books making the rounds at present. Yet EMBERS had me hooked, from beginning to end (admittedly it's not a long read, and for a hardback is not too convenient pricewise), to what is essentially a skeletal story. Now those attentive readers will know from my previous ops that I "need" a good plot in a book to enjoy it to the full. No matter how beautiful the prose, if this is not supported by a decent story then I'm bound to be disappointed. EMBERS is different, to a certain extent. Its story is very bare, in that not much happens; however the fragments of this story are brought to us tiny bit by tiny bit, as if it were an intelligent thriller, so we are kept gasping till the end, and we never feel that we're being dragged along by the author just so he can impress us with his vocab and philosophy.
And no, this is not a thriller. The genre is beyond classification really: it could conceivably be a love story; it could be, in certain parts, a classic thriller; it also examines some very pertinent facts of life, old age, experience, infatuation, classism, but always in a non-pedantic way. Especially for a Hungarian novelist.
Which brings me to the author. Sandor Marai, born in 1900 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lived and wrote during the last ga
sps of this dying empire. A fervent anti-Fascist, but subsequently chased even by the Communists, he fled his homeland first to Italy then to the United States, where he died - by committing suicide - in 1989. Considered during his lifetime one of the greatest authors of Hungary (apparently), he seemed destined to oblivion until his recent rediscovery in European literary circles, culminating in the translation of this first work, EMBERS (the original title would translate, roughly, into "The Candle Burns to the End"), first into other European languages (including German, from which the English translation has been made, incidentally) and then into English. Marai is fast becoming the literary sensation of the noughts (2000 onwards...)... and for good reason.
It has been said (I apologise if I'm plagiarising from a dooyoo op, but I can't for the life of me remember where I've read this) that Hungarians are a superior extra-terrestial race quietly and secretly infiltrated into Earth aeons ago, and successfully camouflaging themselves in a quaint land, their true nature betrayed only by their incredibly talented writers. Well, if Marai, is an example of this extra-terrestial race, then I subscribe to this theory!
In EMBERS we meet Henrik, a Count and a General, of inestimable wealth living as a recluse in an enormous castle at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, well into his seventies at the first rumblings of World War II. For forty-one years he has lived as a complete recluse, with his Castle being kept by his servants and by his old nurse, Nini, a woman who was there at his birth. This evening is special, though. Konrad - his one and only best friend, from whom he was inseparable for about 24 years - has written that he will be visiting the Castle for dinner. Preparations are made, and the dining area of the Castle - unused for 41 years - is restored to its exact semblance of 41 years earlier, awaiting the guest. For this
guest has been awaited by the lord of the Castle for all these years - his life has been consumed in the anticipation:
"A man who has signed away his soul and his fate to solitude is incapable of faith. He can only wait... He prepares himself for that moment for ... forty-one years the way one prepares for a duel... he practices... [w]ith his memories, so that he will not allow solitude and time to cloud his sight and weaken his heart and his soul. There is one duel in life, fought without sabers, that nonetheless is worth preparing for with all one's strength."
What Henrik (the General) and Konrad discuss during the evening - a one-sided discussion that lasts all night - brings to a close events precipitated in that very room one evening 41 years earlier. We travel with Henrik and Konrad on this journey of (their) self-discovery, as one of the protagonists peels off, layer after patient layer, all the secrets of that night and all the contemplations that ensued, while the other protagonist listens, in near total silence, all night long.
Rarely has a near-monologue instilled such magic in me. Admittedly, there is one point, half-way down the road, where the ponderings and meanderings of this protagonist's mind veer dangerously towards over-philosophising, and nearly had me disappointed. However, once this mini-obstacle is surmounted (so there, you are warned, stick that bit out, it's worth it), the beauty of Marai's racconteur-powers is unleashed on us. Rarely have I read and cried so truthfully on such topics as solitude - for EMBERS is among other things an examination of solitude and what it instils in the heart of a man. The flip side of the coin of solitude is death - for those who survive death remain alone, for Marai:
"Thus I understood that a survivor has no right to bring a complaint. Whoever survives has won his case, he has no right and no cause to bring charges; he has emerged the stronger, the more cunning, the more obstinate, from the struggle."
It is a sad book. Not the sadness of current affairs, nor that of the death of a character in a novel. But the profound sadness of a raw nerve being hit, repeatedly, with vicious exactitude but at the same time - and this is what makes Marai's prose magical - with a depective calm. Try the scene where one of the protagonists disposes, calmly and coldly, of something both protagonists have been holding on to and searching for, respectively, for 41 years... if you read that and remain unmoved, unchilled, then Medusa might have paid you a visit earlier...
Poetry? Well no, unless you'd like to compare it to another lushly evocative book, "Fugitive Pieces" by Anne Michaels, in which case you might be near. A well-executed violin piece perhaps? Ok, hot. Indeed, music is a central part of this novel, seeing as the General's mother was related to Chopin, and both Konrad and the chateleine of the manor are music connoisseurs. Music formed, presumably (for many things are not fully explained in the novel - which of course adds immeasurably to its charm), an essential foundation of two of the protagonists' meeting of minds (and more).
Marai's talent - even in translation - for putting music into his words is, dare I say this?, unequalled by any other author I've read. Ok, maybe I'm being precipitous with such a sweeping statement, and perhaps I'll regret this and be back to change this phrase, but at the moment I cannot think of anything or anyone similar.
Just to give an idea, I've recently finished "Atonement" by Ian McEwan, and was already penning a favourable op on it, but when I got into EMBERS I had no option but to delete the entirety of the draft op, in order to start afresh another day when the comparison with EMBERS won't be so inevitable on my part. Chi vivra', vedra'...
"And when the longing for joy disappears, all that are left are memories or vanity, and then, finally, we are truly old. One day we wake up and rub our eyes and do not know why we have woken... Nothing surprising can ever happen again: not even the unexpected, the unusual, the dreadful can surprise us, because we know all the probabilities, we anticipate everything, there's nothing we want anymore, either good or bad. That is old age... Gradually we understand the world and then we die."
Keeping in mind when this book was written, we have a rare insight into the waning of one world - the ancien regime of starched collars and strict class hierarchy - and the waxing of the "new" twentieth century, with its sweeping away of classisms (to a certain extent) and the levelling of the playing field. One cannot but hear echoes of the bohemian revolution idolatrised in the recent film "Moulin Rouge". Konrad the bohemian, with his ideals of music, revolution, love - and Henrik the Count, the General, the last of a distinguished line of the highest-ranking nobility in a defunct empire, and his belief to the death of honour, respect, fidelity and obligations. Of his father's generation, the General thinks thus:
"A good generation, a trifle eccentric, not at ease in society, arrogant, but absolutely dedicated to honor [yes, ahime', the translation has American spelling...], to the male virtues: silence, solitude, the inviolability of one's word, and women. If they were let down, they remained silent. Most of them were silent for a lifetime, bound to duty and discretion as if by vows."
I cannot recommend this book highly enough - whatever your persuasions, whatever your taste in literature, set this book aside and read it someday.
A castle at the foot of the Carpathian mountains in the 1930s. Two men, inseparable in their youth, meet for the first time in forty-one years. They have spent their lives waiting for this moment. Four decades earlier a murky, traumatic event - something to do with a betrayal, and a woman - led to their sudden separation. Now, as their lives draw to a close, the devastating truth about that moment will be revealed.