It's more than four months old, but it's still worth reading...
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Embers, by Sándor Márai
I first got on to this by reading the blog postings of James Henderson over on Goodreads. He writes excellent lucid reviews on books which tend to interest me a lot, though often I haven't head of them before.
Sándor Márai, or Márai Sándor, as he would have been known in his birthplace, is now categorized as a Hungarian writer, though he was born in the time of the Austro-Hungarian empire in a town called Kassa, which is now part of Slovakia. The background story to the work is interesting if not absolutely necessary to know. The book was lost for many years, and was only translated into English from the German translation. Márai ended up in of all places, San Diego, and took his own life there in 1989.
You would never guess from the book that the author had travelled far beyond the time and space of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire. It takes place primarily in the home of an old General, who has shrunk his life into a tiny portion of the once grand house that he was born in. Here, he receives notice of a visitor, and prepares the house for his reception. The man is old, but it is his still older nurse who sees to this task. The visitor arrives--it is his boyhood friend, whom he has not seen for forty-one years. The night and the book are all about what has caused this breach in affection. It is an attempt to set the ledger straight.
This is a very beautiful book. It is quiet, solemn and grave. It is one of those few books I've read where I feel that the author really is a medium for another era, for a way of being in the world that is foreign and closed off to us now. If you happen to have read Penelope Fitzgerald's wonderful The Blue Flower, you will have some slight sense of what you are in for.
Perhaps it isn't even so much the historical aspect that is so intriguing in these works. It is the ability to convey connections between people that are not expressed in the more straightforward, let it all hang out mode of our time. Embers is really a novel about friendship, and it is a deft, if skewering analysis of that bond. What connects and what comes between.
The only exception I'll take to the book is provisional, which is Márai's conception of friendship such as he describes as purely male. Perhaps it is. This doesn't suggest however that women don't also have friendships of considerable depth and power, though Márai may have thought it does.