Sandor Marai’s Embers, first published in 1942 in Hungary, was widely praised when it was rediscovered a few years ago and given what I believe is an excellent English translation. It is a dark and somber novel, not at all light and fluffy like Eat, Pray, Love. The story involves a lavish dinner meeting that stretches s into the morning hours between a former Austrian general, Henrik, and his boyhood friend, Konrad, an impoverished relative of Chopin whose real talent is music:
Konrad’s music…didn’t offer forgetfulness; it aroused people to feelings of passion and guilt, and demanded that people be truer to themselves in heart and mind.
Early on you led to believe the novel is about the nature of friendship and the bond that develops between Henrik and Konrad:
The intimacy that bound them was closer that any physical bond.
It would be good to know whether such a thing as friendship actually exists….Sometimes I almost believe it is the most powerful bond in life and consequently the rarest. What is its basis? Sympathy? A hollow, empty word, too weak to express the idea that in the worst times two people will stand up for each other.,…The eros of friendship has no need of the body.
We are also led to believe there is also the friendship between the two men and Krisztina, Henrik’s beautiful and also musically inclined wife:
…her body seemed possess of a secret, as if her bones, her flesh, her blood concealed with them some essence, the secret of time or of life itself, a secret that could neither be told nor translated into any language, since is was beyond words.
…Krisztina whom I found the way a collector finds the prize of his life, the rarest, most perfect object in his collection, the masterpiece, the goal and the meaning of his existence.
But no, the novel is not about the nature of friendship, rather it is about the fundamental animosity between the two men, the end of their friendship and the way that occurred. This is revealed when they meet once again at the general’s castle after not having seen each other for 41 years. What happened to them during this interval? Why did Konrad abruptly leave Hungry for the tropics? And what is the purpose of their dinner rendezvous after all those years?
The protracted answer to these questions reads more like a judicial sentence than a cordial dinner conversation. We learn that their friendship was one in name only and that they were irrevocably separated by both class and belief. Although Konrad joined the military, he did so without conviction. Henrik says:
You set aside your uniform because you saw it as a disguise, that much is already clear. I, on the other hand, wore mine for as long as duty and the world demanded it.
We learn that one day on a hunt Henrik senses that Konrad is about to shoot him. And then Konrad suddenly resigns from the army and flees the country. When Henrik learns this, he rushes over to Konrad’s house to try to find out why only to discover that his “incandescent” wife, Krisztina, is there and that they had been lovers for years. They never speak to one another again throughout the remaining 8 years of her life as Henrik moves to a hunting lodge on his estate where he lives in solitude.
And so what we learn as Henrik’s long and repetitious lecture-sentence-peroration-tirade continues through the night is that his wife and friend had betrayed him. There is no dialogue, Konrad offers no defense or explanation; he hardly utters a word during the whole of Henrik’s catharsis. One grows weary reading it. Still, after all the hate and venom are let loose upon his guest, Henrik concludes: “You killed something side me, you ruined my life,” yet in the same breath, he proclaims “but we are still friends.”
I have written a less than enthusiastic review of Embers. I would not have read the book had a friend not sent it to me. But she said I might like it. Now after reading it, I’m not quite sure why. But we all read differently and no book speaks the same way to each reader. Perhaps you might enjoy it; one can never be sure of these things, let alone much of anything these days.
I close with passages from Embers on two themes that loom large in my current thinking—aging and change
We age slowly. First, our pleasure in life and other people declines…we understand the significance of everything, everything repeats itself in a kind of troubling boredom. It’s the function of our…Then our bodies age, not all at once. First, it is the eyes, or the legs, or the heart. We age by installments. And then suddenly our spirits begin to age: the body may have grown old, but our souls still year and remember and search and celebrate and long for joy. And when the longing for joy disappears, all that are left are memories or vanity and then, finally, we are truly old.
…there’s nothing we want anymore, either good or bad. That is old age. There’s still some spark inside us, a memory, a goal, someone we would like to see again, something we would like to say or learn, and we know the time will come, but then suddenly it is no longer as important to learn the truth and answer to it as we had assumed in all the decades of waiting.
…neither reason nor experience can do much to change one’s stubborn nature.
…one cannot change another’s tastes or inclinations or rhythms, that essential otherness, no matter how close or how important the bond.
I am thinking that people find truth and collect experiences in vain, for they cannot change their fundamental natures.
…there’s no reward and we have to endure our characters and our natures as best we can, because no amount of experience or insight is going to rectify our deficiencies our self-regard, or our cupidity.