In a secluded woodland castle, an old General prepares to receive a rare visitor, a man who was once his closest friend but whom he has not seen in forty-one years. Over the ensuing hours host and guest will fight a duel of words and silences, accusations and evasions. They will exhume the memory of their friendship and that of the General's beautiful long-dead wife. And they will return to the time the three of them last sat together following a hunt in the nearby forest- a hunt in which no game was taken but during which something was lost forever.
With this foundation laid, the story picks up with Konrad arriving to have dinner with Henrik. The table is set exactly as it was the last time they were together. Past events unfold through Henrik's voice, as he seeks to learn more about Konrad's life and uncover the truth which has been the source of so much pain over the years. This pain has smoldered, like the embers of the title, consuming Henrik body and soul. As the meal and the night wear on, the nature of their conflict is revealed in tiny fragments leading to the inevitable conclusion.
Sandor Marai weaves a tale that is surprisingly compelling, since it is told through primarily through Henrik's one-sided conversation with Konrad. The narrative's emotional depth was surprising. All too often, male friendships are portrayed as superficial. It was the strength of their bond, and the searing pain felt by both Henrik and Konrad is precisely what makes Embers such a special work.
The novel opens in a castle in Hungary sometime in the early twentieth century when an elderly General receives a letter from a boyhood friend he hasn’t seen or talked to for over 41 years. Marai then spirals back in time to orient the reader to the General’s early years growing up as the privileged son of the Officer of the Guards. Henrik’s future was laid out for him to become a soldier of status, and early in his life he meets Konrad - a poor, musically gifted boy whose roots lie in Poland. The two boys become unlikely friends. The reader is also introduced to Nini - a nursemaid who has been with Henrik for 75 years having helped birth him. She is a mysterious figure and the only person with whom Henrik seems to have developed a lasting and meaningful relationship.
Once the stage is set, Marai returns the reader to present day - a day swathed in anticipation and secrets as Konrad arrives at the castle to dine with Henrik and discuss the last time they saw each other. Henrik has become a man of solitude, living mostly alone in the castle and waiting for the day when Konrad would return to reveal his motivations for abandoning Henrik.
Marai’s writing is drenched in mood and suspense. The castle stands in a wilderness filled with deer and bear, candles flicker, and the dead are brought back to life with Henrik’s recollections of a time long gone. The beautiful Krisztina, Henrik’s wife who has now been dead more than eighteen years, now seems to hover in the background.
With tremendous skill, Marai writes of guilt, betrayal, love and revenge while he unravels the story of Henrik and Konrad and why they parted many years before.
Marai is a skilled writer who crafts a story of two men and their friendship. He asks difficult and thought-provoking questions about the nature of humans and why they do what they do. Marai’s writing is eloquent. His narration is magnificently constructed which creates the suspense in what is largely a character driven novel.
In the end, two questions are posed which are left for the reader to answer - not a neat ending, but a thoughtful one.
But somewhere, about 2/3 through the novel, I started to get bored with it. It began to remind me of Strindberg's one-act play, The Stronger, in which two women, former friends, meet in a coffee shop. In both works, one character (the General in Embers, Mrs. X in The Stronger) keeps up a running monologue of thoughts, observations, and questions, while the other either remains silent by choice or is cut off by the talker whenever he/she wishes to respond. It worked well in a one-act play, with the dominant character ultimately adding up the evidence of what had happened and insisting that she had 'won' their competition in the end. In Embers, however, it just went on too long and became a rather tedious, pretentious rant vaguely attempting to philosophize about human nature. I can understand why other readers liked the book so much, but it just wasn't to my taste.
This was a disappointing read and never lived up to the hype . Nice prose but there was a tendency for the story to meander at times and the long winded meditations from the viewpoint of the General became tediously repetitious. On the list for the 1001 Books you must read before you die .
As the novel opens The General learns that his old friend has at last returned and will be arriving that evening for one final dinner.
When they were in school, the two men had a rare friendship:
All societies recognize these relationships instinctively and envy them; men yearn for disinterested friendship and usually they yearn in vain. The boys in the academy took refuge in family pride or in their studies, in precocious debauchery or physical prowess, in the confusions of premature and painful infatuations. In this emotional turbulence the friendship between Konrad and Henrik had the glow of a quiet and ceremonial oath of loyalty in the Middle Ages.
How this friendship came to be and what forced the two men to part ways are the subject of Embers. As The General prepares for his guest, the narrator tells the story of a friendship between a boy born into priveledge and a boy whose parents sold everything they had just to keep him in school. After Konrad arrives, the two sit down for dinner and we learn the rest of their story through their conversation. The General has been waiting 41 years for his chance to question Konrad about the events of their final day together. He will not let the evening pass without hearing the truth at last.
Embers is a quiet novel, but a novel full of tension. We don't learn until late in the story why the two men's friendship ended so abruptly, and it's the desire to know this that gives the book it's forward momentum. But it's a problematic device, because it is a device. The dinner the two men share is a long one, made longer by the chapter length speach The General insists on giving Konrad. The two have waited too long to reconcile, so long that when the time for relevation finally comes around, neither is all that interested.
Unfortunately, the same will be true for many readers.
I read this as a Kindle edition which was well formatted except for an occasional missing space between words.
I only stumbled upon this work because my mother, ever the bargain hunter, found it in the stack of books being put out to pasture at her public library. But Márai's novel Embers is so touching that it should be widely known, and I, who pride myself on being familiar with such obscure gems as Zeno's Conscience and Wide Sargasso Sea, am puzzled and shaken by my failure to have previously unearthed it.
Still, I wonder: Why did it not, even after its translation, meet with more notice? Is it because we Americans seldom search out or pay homage to writers beyond our own boundaries? Then I am ashamed for us. For Márai, who lived from 1900 to 1989, not only straddled many countries and cultures (including the U.S.) but also witnessed important transitions -- from the dying of the Austro-Hungarian empire to the rise and fall of fascism to the birth of the modern democratic world.
Could it be that Embers -- a profound meditation on friendship, honor, and the art of patience and conversation -- is too old-fashioned in its subject to stir contemporary readers? Do we require a story that begins with a bang and holds us by the throat with flying bullets or careening cars? Then we modern readers have lost something, for the relentless unwinding of Márai's tale -- over a conversation between old friends, no less -- is as suspenseful and inexorable as any of Edgar Allan Poe's tales.
Or does our quest for the next new "high concept" keep us from casting our gaze back to books that may, by their very reflection on times gone by, provide us with fresh lessons? Are we so caught up in the modern world, with all its hubbub, buzz, and gadgetry, that we eschew the books that reward us only if we pause to contemplate their fervent sincerity?
I can only cast off my own self-reproach over having missed this book by urging it upon others. If you wish to explore the deep meaning of friendship, if you dare to reflect on what it means to truly encounter another person, I challenge you to search out and read Sándor Márai's Embers. And I promise: If you give yourself over to the world it creates, you will find the sodden everydayness of life scratched away; you will be renewed by a deep appreciation for writing from the heart and wonderment at the rawness of human emotion laid bare.
Marai has been criticized, in "Bookforum" (2008) for being more recherché than his supporters want to admit. That may be so, but here the nearly petrified, nearly mummified, dampened, nearly voiceless and actionless atmosphere, where almost nothing moves and every thought and feeling has been last felt so long ago that only its paperthin husk remains in memory, works perfectly.
The novel takes place over dinner one evening, as the General explains to Konrad, and to us the initially bewildered reader, what he has had endless time to think about in those 41 years. What begins as a novel of friendship becomes an artfully constructed mystery and then a story of excruciating suspense as the General explains wordily the one and only answer that seems possible. At the end, we have the answer. And only one question remains.
At times artful, and at other times highly artificial, the book becomes impossible to put down once the story gets going. Despite the colorful background settings of life in imperial Vienna and in the Orient, this story has the manner of an unconventional detective story where the solution is gradually unfolded almost before the reader even knows there was a puzzle to be explained. Recommended for lovers of the genre. It's different.
Originally published in 1942 and now rediscovered to international acclaim, this taut and exquisitely structured novel by the Hungarian master Sandor Marai conjures the melancholy glamour of a decaying empire and the disillusioned wisdom of its last heirs.
In a secluded woodland castle an old General prepares to receive a rare visitor, a man who was once his closest friend but who he has not seen in forty-one years. Over the ensuing hours host and guest will fight a duel of words and silences, accusations and evasions. They will exhume the memory of their friendship and that of the General’s beautiful, long-dead wife. And they will return to the time the three of them last sat together following a hunt in the nearby forest--a hunt in which no game was taken but during which something was lost forever. Embers is a classic of modern European literature, a work whose poignant evocation of the past also seems like a prophetic glimpse into the moral abyss of the present.
This proved to be a quite extraordinary book, as the Amazon summary quoted by Lindlec suggests.
In a sense it's difficult to say something which Amazon hasn't and I'm reluctant to merely parrot what has been previously said about this profoundly claustrophobic and elegiac book, wrapped in stillness and the ruminations of the decades upon events which happened half a lifetime previously.
It's a novel filled with not exactly dialogue but with long meditations upon friendship, loyalty and betrayal and yet it is in the silences that the questions are truly asked and answers given. It was a slow and delicate read in which the events of decades past were teased apart as carefully and as gently as the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy.
Like few other books it repays reading at a leisurely pace, for answers to questions which have hung in the air for 40 years do not deserve to be rushed.
I bought the book the week of Christmas, and I read it over the holidays. It wasn't hard reading but it was very satisfying.
Some have found fault with the translator's work. All I can say is that the translated text flowed beautifully and the plot was nicely relayed to the reader.
I have Casanova in Bolzano on my nightstand right now. I can't wait to start reading.