Sandor Marai, Embers

This book had been recommended to me by a colleague and by one of our more regular customers. Sandor Marai is described as one of the leading novelists of 1930s Hungary and though he was profoundly anti-fascist, he survived the Second World War. Persecution by communists first drove the author to Italy in 1948 and then to the United States where he committed suicide in San Diego in 1989.

Sandor Marai wrote more than twenty books and Embersis the first to be translated into English (by Carol Brown Janeway who also translated Zvi Kolitz’s Yosl Rakover Talks to God and Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader).

I could not in all honesty rate this book as ‘great’. It is soundly-written, possessing a strong – almost musical – rhythm to the words and must therefore, at the very least, be a good translation (so many translations have a few moments where the syntax jars the eye) but it lacks some-thing.

I’ve never been a person much inclined to have sympathy for people who can’t ‘move on’ and I think this is what I have missed where other readers have found a compelling story. All the boxes for Great Novel are checked but one: sympathetic characters and this is where the novel began to unravel for me.

Set over the course of an afternoon and evening, the story tells of an encounter between two men, Henrik the ‘General’ and Konrad the ‘Guest’ (or, musician) at Henrik’s castle-home in the Carpathian Mountains. Floating in the shadows in the latter half of the novel is Henrik’s wife, Krisztina, who we are to believe, both men have loved deeply.

Embers begins when The General receives a letter which we are told he has waited upon for forty-one years. In memory, we are taken back to the twilight years of the Habsburg Empire in Buda (Budapest is the old Habsburg capital and is in fact two cities) and the youth of Henrik and Konrad. If Henrik’s account is to be believed, he was a loyal and true friend to his much poorer Polish friend though the issue of money always threatened to get in the way. At this part of the story, Henrik’s father casts a long shadow over his son and not only the usual un-communicative father inspires sense of duty in a patriarchal, militaristic society kind of way. His father was a keen hunter.

Henrik relays the knowledge and experience shared by his father: that there are only two sorts of people. There are people like themselves and then there are people like Henrik’s mother, Konrad and crucially, Krisztina. These ‘others’ are moved to dark, passionate thoughts by mere music. Music is never for just dancing to or for men to vainly show off their uniforms while on promenade. This interior world remains forever closed off to Henrik who is doomed to follow his father into a marriage without love.

Henrik wants revenge and the great part of the novel is how the layers of the story and the justification for revenge are slowly revealed in the shimmering life of high society even against the fading glory and downfall of a once mighty empire and the First World War. For forty-one years, Henrik has wanted answers but his friend – for Konrad, The Guest, remains his friend despite the betrayal – has been in the tropics all this time.

Problem: if he really wanted answers to his questions, why not hunt down Konrad in the tropics? Henrik had wealth and the hunter’s instincts which lie at the heart of the novel. One of the problems that Marai never overcomes is that despite his description of himself as a man born for hunting, Henrik is never described with a gun in his hand, only the more sensitive Konrad who may or may not have raised his gun to kill Henrik while on a morning’s hunt. This may well be so that Henrik can more believably be seen as a ‘victim’ but in fact, as so much of the beginning of the story has been devoted to his portrayal of himself as a proverbial ‘man’s man’ – that he was a ‘real soldier’ and a man born for hunting – he becomes little more than a probable liar as he keeps excusing himself from any (past) act of revenge on the basis of his friendship to the man who betrayed him.

Excuses do not a story make and I could not shake the impression that a writer such as Borges would have portrayed an equally rich story in a far more rewarding style in no more than a few pages of a short story. Technically, this novel is brilliant but as a story it falls on the contrived personalities of the two main characters, one of whom says barely a word. We have no strong imagery of Krisztina and Konrad hiding away, conducting their passionate liaisons behind closed doors in a flat that Henrik was never invited to and to which, implausibly for so arrogant an officer, confident in his friend’s companionship, we are to believe he never invited himself.

There is one other very critical flaw and it isn’t even a particularly obvious one except in retrospect. Once Krisztina has been named as Henrik’s wife, I expected to be seeing much more of why Henrik loved her so deeply that he could harbour a grudge so strong and for so long that it has sustained him into old age. There is so much description of life in Buda, and of castle life in the country, of Henrik’s origins – his French mother and Cavalry Officer father – and how Henrik and Konrad were always together as youths but as Henrik dwells upon the history behind this much anticipated meeting, there is so little of Krisztina that we cannot believe Henrik even shared a bed with her let alone a marriage. Where are the details that men know so well of (all) the women they have loved? Is Henrik’s dislike of music so severe that he cannot recall the effect of her voice or the sounds she made when they made love? Those are details which come unbidden to any man. I could not work out if this was a deliberate part of the styling to suggest that Konrad knew more of Krisztina from the brief moments snatched of their affair or whether the true beating heart of the novel, was perhaps Henrik’s feelings for Konrad which were – despite his disavowal – about more than friendship.

A number of reviews online describe the book as being great but… The philosophical musings of two old men at the end of their lives, one of whom hardly speaks and the other who has taken so long to figure out what would have been obvious to someone who wasn’t so self-obsessed do not make for a thrilling read though if you want something quieter, that recalls an earlier more genteel time then this could be for you.

There are so many fictional books available in the English language that have a near-unique style and a haunting voice that to be truly great (and therefore, a book I personally would recommend), a book must also have not only great plot but believable characters and this is not really one of them.