Embers - Sándor Márai
(Translated by Carol Brown Janeway)
"A lamb was brought, a white lamb, and our host took his knife and killed it with a movement I shall never forget . . . a movement like that is not something one learns, it is an Oriental movement straight out of the time when the act of killing still had a symbolic and religious significance, when it denoted sacrifice. That was how Abraham lifted the knife over Isaac..."
Embers is set in the first half of the twentieth century. Much is set in the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The two main protagonists are trained as soldiers and move in circles that intersect slightly with the circle of the King / Emperor. (King in Hungary and Emperor outside) The General, Henrik, is from a wealthy aristocratic Hungarian family and Konrad is the son of impoverished Polish Aristocrats who have had to sell much of their property and possessions to put their son through military academy.
The two have been deeply intimate friends but we are aware that something will separate them even as we learn about their closeness. The first chapter concerns The General receiving a letter which sets the 'action' of the novel in motion. It is, we find out as the General talks to himself and looks at the calendar how many years it has been since he last saw the letter writer: "Forty-one," he said again, hoarsely. "And forty-three days. Yes, exactly."
Their falling out involves Krisztina, the wife of The General who shares Konrad's appreciation for art, and perhaps more. Indeed, it was Konrad who introduced her to Henrik. She is dead more than thirty years, having been estranged from Henrik ever since that day.
Gradually we discover that the General is a close relation of Dicken's Miss Havisham, withdrawing from the world on that distant day and waiting ever since to take his revenge. "One spends a lifetime preparing for something. First one suffers the wound. Then one plans revenge. And waits. He had been waiting a long time now. He no longer knew when it was that the wound had become a thirst for revenge, and the thirsting had turned to waiting. Time preserves everything, but as it does so, it fades things to the colourlessness of ancient photographs fixed on metal plates."
The weight of time is almost a physical presence in the book. Tradition bears down on the general like an added gravitational field. The castle is redolent in ways of Gormenghast, a place where things are done, or should be done in a certain way, just because that is how they have always been done. It has lain largely empty, a physical representation of its owners emptiness. "The castle was a closed world, like a great granite mausoleum full of the mouldering bones of generations of men and women from earlier times, in their shrouds of slowly disintegrating fray silk or black cloth. It enclosed silence itself as if it were a prisoner persecuted for his beliefs, wasting away numbly, unshaven and in rags on a pile of musty rotting straw in a dungeon. It also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats and beetles lurked in the mildewed cellars of old houses."
There is also a sense in which The General is reliving the lives of his parents. His mother was brought to this dank castle in the wilds of Hungary from Paris, and there is a sense that some resentment at this move wound through the marriage. There was also his fathers' jealousy of the regular journeys his wife took back to Paris. Is the relationship between The General and Konrad similar? Konrad, we discover, has an artistic streak, like Henrik's mother. They both share a strong appreciation for music: "when Konrad heard music, he turned pale". Jealous of what he can't share, or understand, The General's father needed other outlets for his anger: "The Officer of the Guards went hunting, and because he could not destroy the world of other places and other people - foreign cities, Paris, castles, foreign tongues, foreign manners - he slaughtered beasts, deer and stags."
The only other character who knows The General's mind is Nini, his wet nurse, who is in her nineties yet remains a dynamic figure. "Nini's was a power that surged through the house, the people in it, the walls, the objects, the way some invisible galvanic current animates Punch and the Policeman on the stage at a little travelling puppet show." In one strange episode she has to go to Paris to be by Henrik's side, as he has developed a mystery illness which has brought him close to death. She nurses him back to health: "Of course, nobody uttered a word about the cause of the child's illness, but everybody knew: the boy needed love, and when all the strangers had bent over him and the unbearable smell had surrounded him on all sides, he had chosen death." It could also have been a distrust of the foreign, of the impossible world where the Emperor doesn't reign.
In the universe created within this book, choices are final. This is rooted in absolute faith in the monarchy, a quality which Henrik saw as fundamental to his moral code: "He felt that he obeyed a strict regime of laws, both written and unwritten, and that this obedience was also duty which he fulfilled in the salons just as he fulfilled it in the barracks or on the drill ground. fifty million people found their security in the feeling that their Emperor was in bed every night before midnight and up again before five, sitting by candlelight at his desk in an American rush bottomed chair, while everyone else who had pledged their loyalty to him was obeying the customs and the laws. Naturally true obedience required a deeper commitment than that prescribed by laws. Obedience had to be rooted in the heart: that was what really counted."
This soldiers code reminded me strongly of Joseph Roth's magnificent Radetzky March, another book set amoung the soldiery of the dual monarchy where uniforms appear to march around with men inside of them, a world where the inflexibility of custom can only break and is not ready to bend. The two books would make interesting companion reads and Embers would not be overshadowed.
The final two thirds of the book recounts the conversation between the two old friends when Konrad finally arrives. It consists of some catching up but becomes virtually a monologue, as Henrik dissects the events of the day before Konrad left. It is less of a duel than a prosecution, but one wherein manners and etiquette remain firmly in place.
The book creates a world of powerfully submerged emotions that works on a human as well as on a metaphorical level. It veers perilously close to a dime store romance where doomed lovers are destroyed by the power of their love but it is lifted far clear by beautiful, enigmatic writing - "Like a spy he took note of the boiling restlessness of the light, the rustle of the hot wind in the desiccated leaves, and the noises of the castle" - and by an almost Beckettian focus on the mechanics of the plot.
Here is my blurb written soon after finishing the book: "Classic triangle of love, betrayal and revenge with all the superfluity burnt away and just the glowing embers left in the grate."
I loved this passage on how Konrad found he couldn't read while in the tropics. Although far from the tropics I sometimes feel that the rain, or the wind, or the buzzing of a lightbulb or just the buzzing of my own mind conspire to make it impossible to take in any book. - "You would like to read, but somehow, the rain gets into the book, too; not literally, and yet it really does, the letters are meaningless, and all you hear is the rain."
The translation never gets in the way of the book. The writing is suffused with a style of its own. This despite the fact that this was translated from the German translation of the original book.