Politics and Society

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Embers, by Sandor Marai: A Review

    Sandor Marai’s novel, Embers, written and published in Hungary in 1942 (as A gyertyek csonkig egnek: literally, “The Candles Burn Down to the Stump”), and translated from its German edition (Die Glut) by Carol Brown Janeway in 2001, is a recent re-discovery of an Hungarian masterpiece which languished in obscurity during the Soviet era. Its resurrection is due largely to efforts by Roberto Callasso, an Italian writer and publisher whose dedication to Europe’s cultural legacy is now even more than admirable. (Alfred A Knopf, Publishers, of New York, is working hard to have all 46 novels by Sandor published in English—such is the output of this Hungarian master!)
    This novel of friendship, betrayal and revenge,
recounts a fateful meeting of two old friends after an estrangement of 41 years and 43 days. The meeting, a dinner reprising their last hours together, takes place in a castle, owned by the narrator, a retired General of the Austro-Hungarian Army, in the Hungarian forests in 1940. His visitor, and the instigator of this reunion, is his boyhood friend and former comrade-at-arms, Konrad, who abruptly resigned his commission and fled Vienna for the Malaysian tropics on July 3, 1899. Now, at 75 years old, they meet again.    
    Sometimes comes a writer, an artist, or a thinker, whose vision is so radically different or whose focus is so startlingly intense, or whose ideas are so deeply worked out to coherence that we feel grateful for the opportunity to witness his work. Sandor Marai is such a one. The General is his mouthpiece, his agony is his voice, and Embers is that work.
    To his ancient nurse he explains:
"Facts are not the truth," said the General.
"They are only a part of it . . .and now I am going to get it from him." (Pg. 64)

    What could provoke such drama between such life-long friends? [Hint: It wasn't money! (Or was it?)] 

    Everything we will learn about this history we learn from the General. For this is more soliloquy than conversation; or narration through soliloquy. The earlier part of the novel sets the scene, rather austerely, but traditionally. The old Vienna of the Hapsburg monarchy is evoked sparingly but beautifully, with the hint of nostalgia and regret one might expect of an old guard. The inner sense of destiny and aristocratic responsibility is brilliantly embodied in the General's early memories of life, education and training.
    The bulk of the book is composed of the General's remarks over dinner about their shared past and the common tragedy of their lives. But along the way, we learn that the General has thought deeply and even profoundly on the nature and dynamics of friendship and fidelity, hunting and man's instinctual nature, and the life of the soldier in relation to his Emperor. (Ah, better make that 'King', since his highness was only king of Hungary, while also Emperor of Austria. Who can keep this stuff straight?) We also learn that he has a knack for lyrical description. E.g.
        "It was gradually getting light, slowly, as if the sun were stalking the world,
         feeling it very gently with the tips of its rays." (Pg. 142)
   The lyrical tone is exemplified throughout the novel, counterbalanced by an austerity of scope. This is a novel of personal perspective, not an exposition on the whole historical panorama that was the Hapsburg empire. It is only what engages the General’s passions, such as his nostalgic memories of crucial events, or the aristocratic pride of place in society and in history; not least his profoundly worked out convictions regarding loyalty and friendship, that receives such treatment. In other words, it evinces both the depths and the limitations of a fevered mind at work, in morbid isolation, on the profoundest issues he can entertain. By deft technique we are gradually oriented in – acclimated to - his personal perspective. I believe this is a powerful and convincing effect. But it is an affectation.
    That is, it is a result of an artistic process: Sandor works his magic by apposition - bring disparate perspectives into proximity within the same sentence or passage - with lyrical descriptions being followed by mundanities, as in this passage (pg 32)
       It is the kind of idea that comes later to most people. 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 few words had captured the whole mean-
       ing of life, but afterwards one always talks about something else.
       (Pg. 32, Italics added.)
   This technique brilliantly suits both the realistic intent of the novelist and the actual nostalgic/elegiac mood and habitual mind-set of the narrator. It is also strangely evocative of the pre-war period of presumed stolidity and real grace that characterized the aristocratic milieu of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

    Though at times, especially the end, the monologue bogs down in fastidious digression, the greater part of it is a wonderful exposition by a very serious and coherent thinker. It is the hard won philosophy of the man left behind. And it will make many sit up and notice that the life of a soldier is not necessarily a life unexamined. It is a testament to an ascetic life lived in self-imposed solitude, struggling with feelings of remorse, regret and revenge, trying to hold a deeply ingrained world view together.
    Whether Sandor's work will become the next great classic added posthumously to the 20th century canon of masters I don't know. (If I get a vote, I will cast it "yeah"!) I do believe this book is a thrilling, compelling and beautifully written book by a very serious writer. Well worth the time spent.

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