Sunday, January 13, 2013


Embers / Sandor Marai; translated from German by Carol Brown Janeway (written originally in Hungarian)
New York : Knopf, c2001.
213 p.

This is a book I've meant to read for years: it's a classic Hungarian novel from 1942, in a quite beautiful English edition. The tale is all about the meeting after many, many years of two men in their seventies who were best friends as children and young men, until one shattering event broke their friendship and resulted in one of them fleeing the country.

It begins from the perspective of Henrik ("The General"), a Hungarian aristocrat holed up in his countryside manor. He hasn't left the small area around his home for many years, while his former friend Konrad has been living in England and the tropics since leaving the area forty years previously.

Henrik has spent forty-one years obsessively mulling over the facts of that long ago day that changed both their lives, and wants to hold his visitor to account. When Konrad arrives, they have dinner in the room they last ate in together, with everything from chairs to decoration to table settings to menu exactly the same. I think that this is a fine way to illustrate the General's absolute 'stuckness' in a past moment. Over the course of the evening he lays out the facts of that long ago day, and about their shared past, to try to determine the truth of what happened.

It's a fencing match in words between two men who as young soldiers learned the art of fencing very well. And, unfortunately for me, I began to find it as dull as watching a real fencing match. Who is scoring? Who knows. The General went on and on, parsing every second of the event, in order to understand it. I saw him as a symbol of the old order, a pompous man who was stuck in the past in every way, and desired to make the world answer to him for it.

The writing itself was masterful, the description of the political environment and all of its minute effects on daily life was strong. There were very quotable bits, and some lovely phrasings. I loved the fact that Konrad was the poorer friend, that he was Galician, that his parents lived a frugal life in Galicia in order to educate him at the centre of the empire. And I felt much more sympathy and interest for this more complex character. The evocation of a pre-war Europe, especially an area that I haven't read much about, was rather fascinating and beautifully drawn. Every carpet and portrait and piece of furniture in the General's manor house becomes present in the imagination. Most intriguingly, in the General's pocket is a little yellow velvet diary tied with a ribbon, formerly belonging to his long-deceased wife, awaiting its turn in the story.

But the actual story was too annoying for me to love it. Tales of jealous husbands tire me, and bore me. And this turned into a type of story like that, with two men wrestling over the possession of a woman's affections. When I read stories like this I begin to feel impatient rather than sympathetic. Also, there were a couple of sentences in the book that caught my attention in a particularly irritating way, though I know perfectly well that they illustrate the thoughts and mores of the time that the book is set (and was written). The first, talking about the relationship between the two men, states that:

And yet, beyond their roles and lives in society, beyond the women, something else, something more powerful made itself felt. A feeling known only to men. A feeling called friendship. 

And the second, revealing the way that the General in particular looks at the wider world, assumes that it exists for human delectation:

All of a sudden the objects seemed to take on meaning, as if to prove that everything in the world acquires significance only in relation to human activity and human destiny.

Both of these statements, or beliefs, were sticking points for me. Perhaps I wasn't in the right mood when I read it, as I couldn't sink far enough into the story to overlook these.

Objectively, it was interesting, and as I've mentioned it was very visual, like a miniature painting with tons of detail. I also enjoyed the reverberations of the title: the fires of jealousy, love and betrayal have been banked for many years, and when these two attempt to fan them up again, the emotion is still there but in a much lower intensity, all in embers. There is no resolution of the dilemma; they realize that there is nothing to be done now except part once again and simply go on. It's well drawn, and an unusual read, but just not one I loved.

Did you read it? What did you think about the motivations behind the "big event" that separated the friends? Was it planned or spontaneous?


  1. I haven't read this book, but the things you point out would bother me as well. Terrific review, Melwyk!

  2. Great review, but doesn't inspire me to read it. One to avoid.

  3. Suko- thanks!

    Shonna - oops...well, we can't love them all ;)

  4. I popped over from the What's In a Name Challenge -- excellent choice for a fire equivalent. I commend you for wading through what sounds like a book that was a bit tedious at times.

  5. Joy - hi! yes, it was too bad that the overall theme didn't catch me. But there were interesting bits, and it wasn't that long so I just kept going. If it had been much longer I doubt I would have!


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