Friday, 15 July 2011

Embers by Sándor Márai

A pivotal point is hinted at in this novel from the start but there is a slow build to it, a ratcheting up of tension before we get to its revelation.
From the first pages we know there has been a schism between the two main characters, Konrad and Henrik, two men who are in their mid-seventies at the start of the Second World War.
It is told mainly from the point-of-view of Henrik who was born into a wealthy family, a land-owning Hungarian father and aristocratic French mother.
From the first pages we find him living as a virtual recluse on his remote country estate, tended to by servants and his former nanny who is now in her nineties.
A letter telling of a visit sparks his reminiscences and sets the scene for the encounter that the first half of this novel builds up to.
The early chapters tell of Henrik's childhood and his coming of age in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a Europe that ceased to exist by 1918.
Konrad is from Galicia, a now extinct geographical entity which lies mostly in modern Ukraine but which has also been tied up into the history of Poland, Austria and Hungary.
Konrad and Henrik attend military school together in Vienna and become inseparable, with Konrad spending his summers on Henrik's family estate. But their difference in background create a friction, more from the perspective of the impoverished Galician than Konrad whose wealth blinds him to it.
Márai's lyrical evocation of this lost epoch fades in comparison with the second half which positively drips with layered prose depicting place, action, emotions and constantly preparing for his revelation.
We learn that Henrik and Konrad have not seen each other for 41 years, that Konrad travelled to the East while Henrik lived on his estate, estranged from his wife who died eight years after Konrad disappeared one day without explanation.
While the outside world may have changed, Henrik is steadfast in his ways, an Austro-Hungarian landowner living in a political climate where the empire no longer exists and where Europe is on the verge of being ripped apart once again.
As the two old men sit down to dinner Henrik tells his former friend: "The world holds no further threat for me. Some new world order may remove the way of life into which I was born and in which I have lived, forces of aggression may foment some revolution that will take away both my freedom and my life. None of it matters. What matters is that I do not make any compromises with a world that I have judged and banished from my existence. Without the aid of any modern appliances, I knew that one day you would come to me again. I waited you out, because everything that is worth waiting for has its own season and its own logic and now that moment has come." P123
Konrad who has travelled and seen the world comes across as the more complete and rounded character but the old landowner, who has not ventured from his estate in decades, challenges that, believing that he has been true to himself while Konrad compromised himself.
".... deep inside you was a fanatical longing to be something or someone other than you are. It is the greatest scourge a man can suffer, and the most painful. Life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one's own eyes and in the eyes of the world. We all of us must come to terms with what and who we are, and recognise that this wisdom is not going to earn us any praise, that life is not going to pin a medal on us for recognising and enduring our own vanity or egoism or baldness or our potbelly. No, the secret is that there's no reward and we have to endure our characters and our natures as best we can, because no amount of experience or insight is going to rectify our deficiencies, ourself-regard, or our cupidity. We have to accept that the people we love do not love us, or not in the way we hope. We have to accept betrayal and disloyalty, and, hardest of all, that someone is finer than we are in character and intelligence." P157
Márai layers twists and revelations in a beautifully-paced piece of storytelling. The denouements at times seem almost understated. The well-flagged schism is much more complete than first suggested, its casual after-dinner retelling accentuating not just one, but a whole series of betrayals.
This is a subtle, nuanced novel - a translation of a translation (from Hungarian to German to English) - that could be read in a sitting but which deserves a slower absorbtion to fully appreciate its rich texture.


Fionnchú said...

Great quote, that, very European in its cool summation of human folly and the limits of hope. Thanks, Tony, for an insightful review of a novel I keep hearing about...

Tony Bailie said...

I was going to review this entirely through quotes John. Some superb writing. Will be interested to hear your take on it if you read it. Looking forward to reading Stasiuk in the next week or so.