Somewhere, in an unspecified location in the wild Carpathians, an ageing General and his long-estranged friend Konrad are preparing for one final dinner together. It’s been 41 years since they last met up like this, and – one feels – the remoteness of the venue is far from the whole reason why such a large amount of time has elapsed without them communicating with one another…
This is the premise for Sándor Márai’s Embers (Hungarian title translating as The Candle Burns to the Stump), his last and perhaps his best-known book, and it’s one that hooks you. Sándor Márai, after all, is perhaps, on an international scale, Slovakia’s most famous writer, and certainly would have known a thing or two about the Carpathians. Such celebrated native sons talking about these mountains in fiction are few and far between.
He is little appreciated as a writer outside of the Hungarian literary world, not even in Slovakia. Whilst Márai’s home city Košice, as part of their 2013 preparations for European City of Culture, established a fascinating “Sándor Márai trail” around the key sights in the city associated with the writer, there can be little denying that the writer preferred Budapest as a place to hang out (those infamous coffeehouses particularly) and wrote exclusively in Hungarian. As Márai’s works were not available to read in English until the 1990’s though, his talents remained unknown for a long time, and all this served to add to the allure of the book when I picked it up in a Budapest bookstore recently. An intriguing mystery wrapped within the greater mystery of the writer’s life.
He was, back in the day when Budapest was a centre of European intellectualism, one of the prominent pre-WW2 voices of realism and it’s clear from the off this book is very much in that style. With Márai, and particularly with Embers, it’s the intricate, methodical mini-sketches of detail (devoting two pages to preparing a dinner set, for example) that conjure, out of the remoteness of the Europe’s far east, a world that seems very tangible. You taste the food the two main protagonists are eating, you live each carefully-assembled detail of their two lives that have led, through the strict course that high society in the Austro-Hungarian Empire set, to this moment.
What permeates through the pages of this novel, though, is the sense of yearning for what once was. Márai was writing this book in the 1940s, when Budapest had already lost the glamourous place at the pinnacle of European sophistication it had until recently held. The main character, the General, has relived the fateful events that forced him and his old friend apart, for 41 years. He has devoted the majority of his adult life to little else and, tellingly, beyond that to dwelling on the glory of those bygone days: how good it all was, how it no longer is. Yet he does so in a house where each of those fond memories have a cruel backlash. For each party he recreates in his head from 41 years ago, he hears the far greater silence of his now-empty abode echoing back at him. For each moment of laughter or love he recalls, he is surrounded by loneliness and coldness.
And like the house, the book is cold: frostily so. As Embers progresses, the idea of the General’s isolated house, little more than a magnificent but soulless museum of memories from the glam times, becomes so unbearable that you end up virtually begging the narrator to dwell once again on the past as an escape.
And the course of events that sour a once-inseparable friendship are compelling, retold through the General’s pedantic yet slightly superior way of expressing himself. There are more twists, too, than a path through the woods of the two main characters’ hunting trips. These trips, like so many aspects of the much revisited old friendship between the General and Konrad, highlights the key difference between them. The General is of moneyed, top military stock; Konrad is poor and rarely has a couple of krona to rub together. The latter is as critical of and embittered towards the status quo as the former is a contented part of it. Perhaps things were always, therefore, destined to go pear-shaped. And when that finally happens, it is little surprise that a woman is at the root of the problem…
But the problem for the reader, in a book like Embers, is a little different. In a tale set up to focus around two old men taking a trip down memory lane to a youth where their own intense friendship dominates over almost everything else, it’s essential to care for one of the characters. The General seems a righteous individual who has dwelt far too long on the past and who never makes a real effort to understand anyone without the ability to enjoy unlimited wealth. At the same time, his generosity towards his friend goes almost entirely unappreciated; Konrad spends the majority of the book sulking or – in the later stages – sullenly silent and unapologetic as the General continues a rant that has presumably been pent up for four decades. This is a beautifully constructed book but it chills you – and its main characters move you to pity or repulsion. Which means you cannot really feel sorry for either of them.
And perhaps an insight into Márai’s own opinion about Slovakia resonates throughout the book too. Whilst Vienna and Paris are described in lively detail, Slovakia is conspicuously absent. You can infer that it is the location of the house in the Carpathians, the melancholy and remote tomb of memories where the present part of the book takes place, but you never once have it made clear to you.
But as a piece of literature, it stands out as a testament of the heyday of Austro-Hungary: Slovakia, other incorporated territories and all. That’s why you should read it.