When re-assembling my long lost (partially destroyed) fiction library, I kept seeing this name, Sándor Márai come up in discussions of exemplary European 20th century fiction. In my old library shelves, I had EVERY significant work of fiction, even the mind numbingly obscure and experimental, but had never even HEARD of this author or any of his novels. It turns out this Hungarian novelist’s oeuvre is of some relatively recent (in literary canon time) discovery. What a discovery it is. He wrote 46 books, mostly novels and was Hungary’s most influential pre-WWII writer. I read what is considered his masterpiece, the 1942 novel, Embers in the Vintage published edition translated by Carol Brown Janeway.
Its calm, elegant third person narrative narrowly chronicles the lives of two friends, Henrik and Konrad, in the time of great societal transition after the disintegration of the Austrio-Hungarian empire. Henrik, the now old General alone in his empty castle, reconstructs the story of a unique kinship between the two men. Focalized through Henrik, he recounts scenes of their childhood together, examining their uncommon bond, a relationship which enmeshes their two sensibilities: Henrik the ‘soldier’ and Konrad the artist. As the old general prepares for his old friend, Konrad’s visit after a 41 year absence. We gradually learn why there has been a four decade separation, and therein lies the tale…
It has been noted elsewhere that Embers is a novel containing little action. The force of the narrative is built gradually by reflection and introspection, the tension is of the slow boil kind, but by the final scene, the pressure in the atmosphere where the two finally sit down and face each other is palpable We are in the end asked to pay attention to the silences, to compare what is said with what is left unsaid. I have always liked Harold Bloom’s concept of Wisdom Literature. He often gives Shakespeare and Proust as examples of some high priests of Wisdom Literature. For me Embers belongs in this realm:
One’s life, viewed as a whole, is always the answer to the most important questions. Along the way, does it matter what one says, what words and principles one chooses to justify oneself? At the very end, one’s answers to the questions the world has posed with such relentlessness are to be found in the facts of one’s life. Questions such as: Who are you?…What did you actually want?… What could you actually achieve?…At what points were you loyal or disloyal or brave or a coward? And one answers as best one can, honestly or dishonestly; that’s not so important. What’s important is that one finally answers with one’s life.