Andrew Szegedy–Maszak, Professor of Classical Studies, selects Embers by Sandor Marai
If one looks only at the outlines of its plot and setting, Embers, by Hungarian writer Sandor Marai, seems to be just another old–fashioned novel of intrigue. The action unfolds in a large and gloomy castle, somewhere in the mountains of Central Europe, at some time near the beginning of World War II. Although the elderly proprietor, known as the General, is wealthy, he lives an ascetic life. He is a widower and practically a hermit, alone except for his anonymous household staff and his devoted, aged (but ageless) nurse, Nini. He is awaiting the arrival of one Konrad, who had been his closest friend from boyhood into early manhood.
Konrad and the General were inseparable during their school years, and when they entered military service as young officers in the Kaiser’s army, they enlisted in the same regiment and shared an apartment in fin–de–siecle Vienna. The bond between them endured, even after the General married the exquisite, mysterious Krisztina. The two men are to have dinner together after not having seen one another for 41 years, due to a grievous but as yet unspecified rupture.
The trappings of melodrama never entirely disappear: “Konrad had known that one day he would have to come back, just as the General had known that some day this moment would arrive. It was what both had lived for.” In the course of the evening, a violent storm knocks out the electricity, so that candles provide a flickering illumination, and when Konrad and the General retire for brandy and cigars, next to the General’s chair stands a small table whose drawer conceals a pistol.
What I’ve sketched so far might sound utterly conventional, and I admit that one of the things I love about this book is its film noir atmosphere: the echoing salons, the shrouded furniture, the empty rectangle on the wall where Krisztina’s portrait once hung. What Marai has done, however, is to take such familiar props and use them to frame an unexpectedly contemplative meditation.
At its core Embers is a philosophical dialogue. Marai hints as much when he has the General reflect that there may have been a spark of the erotic in the attachment between himself and Konrad: “These days such things have been written about much more freely. But I have also repeatedly re–read Plato, because in school I wasn’t yet ready to understand him. Friendship, I thought—and you who have seen the world certainly know this better than I do alone here in my village—is the noblest relationship that can exist between human beings.” As in Plato, the dialogue is actually more of a monologue, for the General—we eventually learn that his name is Henrik—is the principal speaker, with Konrad offering an occasional response. Befitting the musings of an old man, the pace is deliberate and the tone formal, though it is lightened by moments of rueful humor. As the evening goes on, the General ponders the complexities of love, loyalty, trust, and memory. Like Plato too, Marai presents questions without providing answers. After all, with topics like love, loyalty, trust, and memory, how could he or anyone make definitive claims? I found myself reading and re–reading passages, not because they were opaque but because I enjoyed the opportunity to think about issues that are so important that we are usually embarrassed to talk about them.
I should also acknowledge another personal connection. Embers was first published in Hungary in 1942 (under the title The Candles Burn Down to Stubs). Marai had already acquired a considerable reputation as a writer, and I was surprised to learn from my aunt that he and my father had been friends. Like my father, he strongly opposed the Soviet takeover in Hungary and also emigrated to the United States. My aunt told me that shortly after Marai and his wife arrived in New York, around 1950, they joined my parents for lunch. Marai spent much of the time voicing his despair: how could he continue to write when he was cut off from Hungarian language and culture? I don’t know what he did or what happened to him next except that the Marais made their way to California and eventually settled in San Diego. There, almost 90 years old, ill and alone, Marai committed suicide in 1989. I have heard, from the same aunt, that he simply walked across the beach and into the Pacific.
That image haunts me as I think about Embers, and I am grateful that he left for us this extraordinarily wise and moving little book.