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Embers by Sándor Márai

May 25, 2015 25 comments

Embers by Sándor Márai (1942) French title: Les braises. Translated by Marcelle et Georges Régnier.

Marai_braisesEmbers is set in 1941 in an odd aristocratic castle in Hungary. Henri is 75, a widower and a former general from the Austro-Hungarian army. His wife died years ago and he lives a solitary life. He’s retreated in a small part of the castle and lives among his servants. One night, a messenger comes with a letter, informing him that Conrad is back. Henri sends a car to fetch him and while he waits for him, he reminisces their childhood, their youth, their friendship in the military academy in Vienna.

They haven’t seen each other in 41 years. Conrad left and we soon understand that they parted abruptly and that Henri has been waiting for this reunion for all his life. He survived everything to be there and alive for this confrontation. We will witness their exchange and see the two men’s story unravel in front of us. I won’t say more about the plot to avoid spoilers. I will only say that their talk involves the general’s wife Christine and a love triangle.

Márai explores several paths in this beautiful novel. Through the general’s eyes, we see a lost world, the one he grew up in and saw crumble after the Great War. His father was in the military too and his mother was French. They met in France and lived in Hungary after they got married. We gather that their marriage was complicated as they had opposite personalities. The general’s father was rather stern and closed-off, a soldier to the core while his mother was more open and artistic. It sounds simplistic but that’s the way Márai presents it, even saying that being French led her to be more eager to talk about her feelings. (I still haven’t understood that statement.)

Their son Henri enjoyed is career path. He didn’t have trouble adapting to military academy and had the wealth and charisma to play the role expected from him. He did it effortlessly …because Conrad was by his side. Young Henri needs affection to be healthy and happy. Somehow, Márai makes it sound like an oddity, a weakness while our modern world finds it obvious.

Conrad and Henri met when they were ten. Conrad comes from an impoverished family from Poland (His mother was a relative of Chopin’s) and his parents sacrificed everything to pay for his education. Contrary to Henri, he had a hard time feeling comfortable in military clothes. He’s musical, he has an artistic temper and wearing a uniform is like wearing a costume for him.

He and Henri were close, though. Conrad spent his holidays at the castle and Henri’s family took him under their wing. Conrad and Henri’s mother got along very well as they both loved music. They were are carried away by Chopin’s music while Henri and his father didn’t understand what the fuss was all about. That’s the symbol of the rift between the characters.

The novel could be a theatre play, a tragedy by Racine or Corneille. It’s set in one place with two characters and Henri’s old nanny. Most of the book is a dialogue between Conrad and Henri. Henri is the one doing most of the talking, letting out the result of 41 years of ruminations. He discourses on friendship, memories, revenge and what men learn when they get old. There’s something disturbing about the way Márai describes passion and duty.

Although I loved the book and the description of passionate feelings, I remained aloof, a spectator. I wanted to find out what had happened, I wasn’t bored at all and I found the discussion between the two men very interesting. The novel is full of thoughts about friendship, love, honour, betrayal, ageing and human experience. Although part of these thoughts touched me, the story didn’t engage me emotionally. Sometimes when you read a book, you come across thoughts and feelings that are yours. It can be a relief to find a writer who put words on inner thoughts you’re not able to express and to find out that these confused or semi-formed thoughts are only human. When I read about great passions that lead to dramatic gestures or behaviours, I don’t feel like I’m sharing human experience. I need a bit of suspension of belief to enter the story because if I let my brain take over, I’ll just roll my eyes and think “Really, how is that plausible?” I need it to read Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliet. That’s why I have a hard time enjoying Phèdre by Racine or Le Cid by Corneille. I can’t relate to these extreme reactions and grand and long-lasting passions; I remain a spectator.

The same thing happened here. Henri’s course of action sounds improbable to me, especially since it lasted 41 years. I understand burning passion leading to murder in the heat of the moment. But to put one’s life on hold to maintain embers of old feelings and resentment during 41 years and only live to meet Conrad again and hear the truth? I don’t believe in such a steady consuming passion. Perhaps I’m far too practical for that.

In parallel to the personal story between Henri and Conrad, Márai uses his two characters to show the end of an era, the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its values. Henri is stuck in his ways. His life didn’t unfold as expected but he never adapted his goals to the new situation. Perhaps it’s a vision from the 21st century, of someone living in an ever changing world where constant adaptation is crucial. Perhaps Márai wanted to emphasise Henri’s shortcomings to picture why this empire declined.

On another note, I noticed that some details don’t add up in the novel. Henri’s nanny is 91 when the novel starts and she’s been with him since he was born and she was 16 then. (Chapter 2) So Henri is 75 but later Conrad says they’re 73 (Chapter 10). Anyway, they were born around 1866. In the first part of the novel, Márai describes how Henri’s parents met and he says they attended a party thrown by the king of France. (Chapter 3) There hasn’t been a king in France since 1848. Somehow I don’t believe that twenty years happened between their meeting and Henri’s birth. I assumed that the said king is actually Napoléon III. I’d be happy to know how this passage in the Chapter 3 is translated into English: do they see the king of France or the Emperor? I wonder if it’s a slip from the translator or if it was in the original text.

Reading my billet again, it’s not as enthusiastic as it should be. Embers is an incredible novel. It’s rather short and still packs a lot of thoughts; the story is gripping and the style is wonderful. Márai was talented, that’s certain. If someone has read it and remembers it enough to discuss it, I’m ready to exchange in the comments, spoilers included.

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