Review of Embers, by Sándor Márai
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/29/05
Perhaps as critical as the production of great art and literature is the ability to recognize it, and then promote it. Over the years the massive weight of bad literature- poetry, and especially fiction (for it’s far easier to write prose than poetry)- gets more daunting with the tens of thousands of books released every year by writers whose transparent lack of talent makes one question the very motives of the editors, publishers, and critics, especially considering most of the bad writing is also manifestly incapable of being a bestseller due to its subject matter or style.
That said, I am fortunate to have, in recent months actually stumbled across not one, not two, but three great novels. The first was Richard Matheson’s sci fi-vampire epic I Am Legend, the second was the magnum opus of Betty Smith, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, and the most recent is Sándor Márai’s Embers, translated from the Hungarian by Carol Brown Janeway, a 1942 novel whose title was A Gyertyák Csonkig Égnek, which roughly translates to The Candle Stump _____, most likely Burns, or The Candles Are Burnt Down, which is a bit of an improvement over the banal Embers.
While Matheson’s book achieves greatness in its being a nonpareil examination of human loneliness, and Smith’s book is an incredibly and indelibly detailed portrait of a bygone time and place, Márai’s book is great in how it dares cliché, and surmounts it. Like Matheson, the book explores loneliness, albeit in a very different way, and like Smith the world the characters of the book inhabit is a bygone world. However, it is the daring of cliché that is so wonderful. In short, the whole plot of the novel is very plain and very trite, and many people who have read it and disliked the book (a key distinction is that like and excellence are different criteria) do so because of its seeming clichéd plot. However, these are people who merely read a book, get a drift, then turn off, skim, or don’t even finish a book. For if they had they would see a masterpiece of inverting the expected.
This is not a plot-driven book, so telling the whole plot is not ruining a thing. It is about a man whose best friend has an affair with his wife. But, that is, of course, not what the book really is about. The book is really about obsession, grief, and mature acceptance, as well what human beings do with their brief time alive. The how the story unfolds is far more important than what it unfolds. As one reads the book, one may hope that there is a twist ending, that the truth that the husband character suspects is false, but it is not. Yet, there is a twist ending- there is no twist, and any real twist would likely have been far too contrived a scenario. For American readers suckled on plot above all else it should be stated that both the date of the book’s publication, and the fact that it is European may leave many American readers bored, for the tale unfolds rather slowly, yet intricately, but the characterization is so good that the build up is more than worth the wait.
The book opens with a retired wealthy Austro-Hungarian General in his mid seventies, in 1940, who lives in a castle, and gets word that an old friend is coming to visit after forty one years abroad. We get to know of their past- the General was a boy named Henrik, and his lone companion through his life has been his childhood nurse Nini, a woman now in her nineties. When a pre-adolescent he met his greatest friend, a boy named Konrad, who was his age, whose family had fallen from aristocracy in Poland. They were inseparable for years, yet Konrad was secretive, ashamed of his fall from grace, poverty, and his life as an artistic wannabe.
Eventually Henrik marries a girl several years his junior, Krisztina, and for a decade or so all is well. Then, one day Konrad leaves for the tropics, and is never seen again. Eight years later Krisztina falls ill and dies, and another thirty-three years pass until Konrad is making his return. By this point we are about a third through the 213 page novel, and the last two thirds of the book kicks into overdrive, and the real greatness of Marai’s writing takes over. Literally about 90% of the remaining book is the General speaking to his guest, Konrad, about 9% is description of the two old men’s dinner, and after dinner scenery, and only 1% of the tale is Konrad speaking- usually just in enigmatic assent or query to Henrik.
De facto, the third person omniscient narration of the novel, to this point, becomes a dual perspective book, as the vast monologues of the General become another perspective. In his speeches we see that the General has found out of the affair, and that Konrad and Krisztina planned to murder him the day before Konrad ‘fled’, as the General calls his actions. The General senses that Konrad was to kill him, during a hunt, but chickened out, thus earning the appellation ‘coward’ from Krisztina. The next day he was gone, Krisztina and he never lived under the same roof again, nor spoke, ‘coward’ being the last words he ever heard her utter, until she willed herself dead eight years later. The General then found out more and more of their trysts, and Konrad’s artistic dreams, but kept it all to himself, waiting for the day Konrad would inevitably return to ‘the scene of the crime’.
Normally the utter detail that a character would speak of would be unrealistic, and be spoken by the omniscient narrator, but since the General has obsessed over the end of his marriage and friendship on the same day, for forty-one years, it is wholly believable that he can recall the barest of details of that last day. Yet, time has healed the biggest wounds. The General does not need to know if Konrad planned to kill him, or if he and Krisztina were lovers. That is all known. That is of little use to him. After a cat and mouse session with Konrad, which in some parts resembles a mystery detective’s expository peroration, and in others scenes from the wonderful 1982 experimental film My Dinner With André, there are only two queries that the General puts forth before his friend. The first is whether or not his wife was plotting his death with Konrad. Konrad declines to answer, and the General is unmoved. He realizes that there is something silly over arguing over things that happened in a world that no longer exists, and a woman decades dead. His query is one more to himself than his guest, and is a broadly phrased query of the universe, and the meaning of life. Konrad suggests that they both know the answer and it’s superfluous. At that, the men part, Konrad leaves, and the General tells Nini that she can finally re-hang his dead wife’s portrait, which was banished from the wall for decades. It means nothing now, and night calls.
What strikes me most is how utterly daring and ‘experimental’ such a structure was, decades before Milan Kundera, and writers of his generation, made their marks. It is far more ‘experimental’ in storytelling structure than the prose diarrhea of Beatniks like William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac because it is not about self-flagellation on the author’s part, nor is it about visual games on the page. Instead Márai gambles that his lead character, General Henrik, can carry the whole load of telling, not showing, against the kind of simplistic prohibitions of such that infest bad creative writing workshop gurus, and succeeds, much as a poet like Wallace Stevens does by likewise damning such injunctions by telling so brilliantly- the mark of true literary greatness. The novel is a long trek down a dark corridor toward a point of exit in the distance, and as such has all the tautness of the best of ‘thriller’ novels, despite being a complex, yet straightforward, psychodrama. It is free of ornamentation and excess, and achieves its greatness in focus, which is about as opposite an approach to novelry as one can get from the richly foliating branches of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.
As this is the only work of Márai’s yet in English, I do not know if the comparisons to novelists as Thomas Mann or Herman Hess are legitimate. Certainly, this book far surpasses anything the dull, hefty tomes of Mann hold, and there is a certain kinship with the obsessive nature of Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and also the stripped down quality of Siddhartha, yet I will reserve final judgment on the writer, if not this book, which my wife got for less than three dollars at an overstock book store.
Others have also compared his simple lyricism and succinctness of sentence structure to magical realism, but this shows a poor critical eye, for the books of magical realism I’ve read, most notably Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s dull, formless, and bloated works, are no match for the sheer power of philosophic and descriptive accuracy that informs this book. Márai needs no silly magical contrivances, for the memory of a lost world, to the General, is all the more powerful for its realism, and its loss, to him. In fact, I’ve often said that the reason philosophy is doing far worse than even poetry, these days, is that its purveyors are terrible conveyors of their ideas- i.e.- they are bad writers. Márai, in a sense, uses this book as a masque for a philosophic treatise on existentialism, and it is one of the best cases for that cause ever penned. Of his and Konrad’s erst-friendship the General laments, ‘the eros of friendship has no need of the body’. Yet, there is something truly noble in the General, as he is not shown, as in many other novels portraying pre-Great War aristocrats, as a caricature. He is a dinosaur, to be sure, but they were wondrous, weren’t they?
By contrast Krisztina and Konrad are pallid, but necessarily so, since they are filtered through the General’s eyes. And Konrad, it seems, knows this, and knows the futility of denying the General’s queries and accusations. Whether or not he actually did conspire to kill his friend, at the behest of Krisztina, and whether or not they were lovers, which seems likely, is beside the point, as Konrad seems to know, in his brief words, and subtle limning of actions, the General as well as the General knows him, or better. Perhaps he decides to let the General have his delusions of conspiracy, for it is his final revenge upon a man who he could not hide forever from, who bullied him as a friend, and constantly asserted his superiority at every opportunity. The General, early on, asserts the difference between mere facts and the truth, and by novel’s end that difference is stark. Which man’s truth- the General’s or Konrad’s- is real is as troublesome as mere facts can be, it seems. Yet, the General, despite getting nothing from his friend, seems satisfied in believing his elaborate reconstruction over four decades has to be true. In fact, the whole main plot of the novel is superfluous to the General, because at its end he knows nothing more of substance than he does at its start. But ignorance has never been more invested with pathos and intellect. Konrad, on the other hand, has moved on- whether over a love affair, or his resentment of his presumptive ‘friend’. He is the most enigmatic character, an artiste who knows himself, that he is not a real artist, but indulges his desires anyway, but also the wisest. In his silences a reader probably senses that his ‘side’ of the story, be it not the General’s idea of an affair, but Henrik’s haughtiness, or something else, is truer than the General’s. That Márai does not let him tell us his ‘truth’ is a great writer knowing what he is doing, and ‘showing’ by omission.
This is daring cliché, and greatness in action, for that greatness is the residue of such success. Those who see only a romanticized Age of Empire nostalgia- in the love of Vienna, the male bonding of a hunt, the portrayal of non-Europeans as noble savages, or Nini as nanny- miss the point that these are not stereotypes, but what still exists in the General’s dinosaurian mind and memory, which are the real main characters, manifested by the monologues’ narrative style This is why we only get a single flashback to set up the characters before the General’s monologues subsume all. Because of this we get to see how distorted the General’s views of things, trammeled by his own aristocratic morés, haughtiness and presumptions that all his acquaintances merely orbited about him, including likely his suspicions of his wife and best friend, are. Any further flashbacks would have utterly undermined the novel’s approach and necessity of ‘telling’ by the General, and the begging of the reader to draw their own conclusions from the cleft between what they interpret and what the General does.
These conclusions are, as Márai ends his novel, ‘like every kiss….a clumsy but tender answer to a question that eludes the power of language.’ And such questions are not based upon plot revelations, but characters. The General is one of the most memorable in literature, and if Márai’s other works even come near this one’s greatness it will only be for the recognition of art lovers like Konrad- silent, anomic, but confident in what they know, and what others think.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 5/05 Hackwriters website.]
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