Embers by Sándor Márai

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.

  1. May 25, 2015 at 10:26 pm

    Comparing to the English translation may only confuse things, since the English version is a translation of the German translation! Hopeless.

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    • May 26, 2015 at 9:29 pm

      Flûte! Perhaps someone around here has the German translation, then.

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  2. N@ncy
    May 25, 2015 at 11:05 pm

    Steady consuming passion reminded me of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’. Does it only happen in books? Great review. Enjoyed your ‘ critical eye’ about sections of the book that just did not add up!

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    • May 26, 2015 at 9:30 pm

      Thanks Nancy.

      I haven’t read Love in the Time of Cholera, so I can’t compare. (I was never tempted to read it, to be honest)

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      • N@ncy
        May 26, 2015 at 10:40 pm

        I found it one of the most captivating books I have read. It is on my top-10 list!

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        • June 1, 2015 at 10:40 pm

          It is captivating even if he didn’t speak to me as much as other books I’ve read.

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  3. May 26, 2015 at 12:03 am

    I read this a few years ago and although many people loved it, to me it was underwhelming. I just didn’t feel moved or that involved with the story to be honest

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    • May 26, 2015 at 9:32 pm

      I was impressed by the style, the construction of the book and ***spoilers*** I wanted to hear the answers Conrad had to give as well and what had happened between him and Christine.

      There’s a coldness in Márai that I already noticed when I read Confessions d’un bourgeois and I suspect it makes us stay a lit aloof from the characters.

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  4. May 26, 2015 at 12:21 am

    Thanks for a great review: it’s on my wishlist already because it’s listed in 1001 Books You Must Read, but I’ll move it up the list now.
    BTW Grand passions? Yes. I am the child of two people who married three weeks after they met.

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    • May 26, 2015 at 9:36 pm

      I’ll be interested to read your review of it.

      Re-Grand passions. Oh, I’m all convinced about whirlwind romance like your parents had. I’m just underwhelmed by someone who can be resentful during 41 years, miss his life. What did it change? It only made him miserable. I think people move on, whether they want it or not. I totally get that he wanted answers from Conrad about the past but I don’t find it plausible that he laid around 41 years waiting for the answers.

      Did I just make it go even higher on the list now? 🙂

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  5. May 26, 2015 at 4:46 am

    I read this two months ago. I think what you capture most strikingly is how a book, made up in large proportions of dialogues and reflections, still manages to grip the reader (or at least, gripped me) until the very end.

    Also, it was wonderfully atmospheric. The sense of bleakness, of cold, the weight of memory, the bitterness of the characters… all very well done.

    That said, I also agree with Guy – perhaps paradoxically – that when I finished the book, I felt a little underwhelmed. I ended up feeling that it was a wonderfully set-up story that didn’t… live up to what it promised in the beginning and the middle.

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    • May 26, 2015 at 9:42 pm

      Did you review it? I couldn’t find your post.

      ***spoilers***
      I agree with your comment and although I found it brilliant, I wasn’t sold to the story.
      Do you think that Conrad was jaleous of Henri? It could explain why he wanted to kill him. I’m convinced he wanted to.

      I also wondered if Henri wasn’t a bit in love with Conrad. (perhaps I’m led to this assumption because I know Márai was gay) I felt he was more hurt by Conrad’s betrayal than by Christine’s.

      What I didn’t find plausible is this permanence of anger and questions in Henri’s head. Or more exactly, that he was stuck in the past and never moved on. He stopped living after that and it wasn’t convicing.

      41 years is a lot of wasted years.

      What did you think about that aspect of the novel?

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  6. Tredynas Days
    May 26, 2015 at 8:09 am

    I too read it some time ago, and it’s faded in my memory – but I do recall a strong sense of atmosphere and aching loss in the protagonist. It’s true that this kind of grand passion can leave a reader sidelined somewhat, but I think there’s still a powerful narrative current in the novel. Another such long-lasting ’ember’, it occurs to me, is found in Conrad’s ‘The Duel’ – although the crazy obsession of Feraud, though based on a true story, is more satirically treated than Márai’s novel, but shows that however implausible such obsessions can persist…Thanks for an interesting review.

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    • May 26, 2015 at 9:55 pm

      I think Guy reviewed The Duel. I’ve never read Conrad, although I have one on my TBR.

      Perhaps I’d find it more convincing if there had be a hint of humour in it. I believe these obsessions can persist and I’m sure that at Henri’s place, I would have jumped on the occasion to get answers from Conrad.
      What I find a bit pitiful is to stay obsessed to the point of letting your life pass by. I believe in resilience and moving on. I have trouble to have sympathy for characters who won’t let the past go and move on. And I can’t pity Henri. It’s like his life has been this giant pity party ever since the drama with Conrad and Christine.

      I’ve read Confessions d’un bourgeois by Márai and I found it very interesting but I didn’t like the man I saw behind the lines. You know, sometimes when you read a book, you think “This is a writer I’d love to hang out with”. I would have loved to meet Frigyes Karinthy or Dezső Kosztolányi but Márai, not so much. It may have influenced my reading.

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  7. May 26, 2015 at 9:29 am

    Fascinating post, Emma. I really like how you’ve described your reactions to the story. I’ve looked at this novel two or three times, had it in my hand in bookshops but never quite made it to the till. It’s still on my wishlist as I’m intrigued by the whole ‘lost world’ theme. I’ve just started Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, which is our book group’s choice for July, and it feels steeped in a similar sense of a vanished world.

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    • May 26, 2015 at 9:59 pm

      Even if there’s a sense of “lost world”, the novel is still centred on the story of the two characters.
      The old world comes to life when Henri thinks about his youth but otherwise, it’s all about the confrontation between the men.

      There’s a battle of will, if you want. If I had to compare it to a film, I’d say Diplomacie, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, with André Dussollier and Niels Arestrup. These actors would be great to play Henri (Niels Arestrup) and Conrad (André Dussollier)

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  8. May 31, 2015 at 11:04 pm

    Thanks for the film tip Emma as I’m a fan of both André Dussollier and Schlondorff.

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    • June 1, 2015 at 10:32 pm

      I’ve seen the play version with Dussolier. Tremendous.
      You’ll probably like the film.

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  9. June 1, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    I’ve not read it yet, so I’m being careful with the comments since people have kindly flagged spoilers.

    Just having finished Sodom and Gomorrah, I know exactly what you mean re an author speaking your own experiences. Sodom gets into some fairly dark territory, jealousy, control, but Proust always to me feels like he’s speaking of human experiences, of experiences I can imagine even if I’ve not had them. When he writes about grief I recognise the emotions, he says that I lack the ability myself to say.

    When the emotions get too big though, when it all gets terribly grand as in Wuthering Heights, like you I become a spectator. The novel no longer speaks to human life, but to something else.

    I’ll save your review until after I’ve read it, then return (probably some time from now), as I imagine i’ll have more to say. Right now it sounds brilliantly written, but perhaps not as subtle as Kosztolanyi.

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    • June 1, 2015 at 10:31 pm

      That’s exactly what I meant when I said I remained distant from the feelings exposed in the novel.
      I hope you’ll read it because I’d love to read your thoughts about it. It’s an excellent novel, really well written and well crafted. It’s suspensful and deep. But…I couldn’t relate.

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      • June 3, 2015 at 6:34 pm

        Oh I’ll definitely read it, it’s been on my radar for ages. For some reason though it keeps just staying on by TBR pile not really moving up it much to actually be read. Hopefully later this year now I’ve your review to prompt me, though I suspect my reaction will be similar.

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        • June 3, 2015 at 10:21 pm

          Will it go on the second round of #TBR20?

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          • June 4, 2015 at 5:25 pm

            Maaybee, Banffy’s more likely though on the Hungarian front.

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            • June 6, 2015 at 4:19 pm

              Someone I know is currently reading him and she’s having a good time.

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  1. November 12, 2016 at 5:19 pm

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