Embers by Sándor Márai

I, too, would like to speak of essential truths.

Some books are enjoyable to read but not to think about. Others are unenjoyable to read but pleasant to think about. And some are both. These are the elect. Sándor Márai’s novel achieves eminence by combining disarmingly simple prose with endless interpretive possibilities. Endless.

Welcome to Embers

They flicker everywhere — in the hearth, pulsing faintly. They gutter in candle sconces on the wall. They flare in hearts, bodies, and minds. They erupt in the agony of war. And then they turn to ash, eventually.

The year is 1940. Henrik, 75, is an old aristocrat in Europe. He receives a letter from Konrad, a beloved friend he hasn’t seen since Konrad betrayed him 41 years ago. Henrik sends a coach to retrieve him for dinner. They greet each other and repair to the dining hall.

“I ask you to listen to me,” Henrik says. He gives a stunning recapitulation of their lives. Every major event is included in its proper order, from childhood onwards, right up to the fateful day 41 years ago, when Konrad, on an early morning hunt, raises his weapon to kill Henrik but forgoes his shot; and dinner later that night, when Henrik’s wife, Krisztina, blanches at her husband’s presence and talks to Konrad about the tropics; and Konrad’s flight the next day from Europe to the tropics; and Henrik’s discovery of Krisztina’s diary only years later after her death.

Wound, waiting, revenge

This extraordinary scene begins in the evening as light bleeds into darkness and ends in the morning as dark bleeds into lightness and culminates with Henrik’s burning question, “Did you and Krisztina collude in a plan to kill me?”

Before Konrad can answer, Henrik reveals Kristina’s diary bound in yellow velvet and sealed with wax, unbroken and unread all these years. It’s assumed to contain the truth.

“Would you like us to read Krisztina’s message together?” asks Henrik.

“No,” says Konrad.

Henrik throws the diary into the embers of the fire and is consumed.

About the other question, “Will you give me an answer?” asks Henrik.

“No, I shall no longer answer that question either,” says Konrad, implying he would have had Henrik preserved the diary.

Silence is eloquent

Embers is a deeply puzzling work, with its play of light and dark, speech and utterance, presence and absence. Oppositions are often entangled. One term is not always clearly distinguishable from the other.

There’s something fundamentally unknowable about people, about the essential truth of who they are. For their intentions are often hidden or unclear or uncertain. Not only to the outside observer but to the very observer whose intention pulses, flickers, and gutters in his own mind or heart.

Because the mystery of love and friendship is the major theme of Embers, Márai is right to end the novel on an unanswered (or answerable) question. The reader is left blinking in a state of incomprehension.

As mystery is part of the content and meaning of life, so it is part of the content and meaning of Embers, too.

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16 Responses to Embers by Sándor Márai

  1. Fredr says:

    Kevin,

    Good Review!

    It seems to be an intriguing work. I shall put it on my search list.

  2. Kerry says:

    Kevin,

    This is an excellent review of an incredibly well-crafted, enjoyable, and mysterious book. You’ve done justice to a great book. That is, and I mean it as, high praise.

    I agree with you that the mysteries of life and friendships and love are central to this work. Marai manages to throw as much light into those unknowable crevices of the human heart and mind as it seems possible to do and he does it by leaving central facts of the story in ambiguity. I love how he builds the tension towards the big reveal and then, masterfully, brings the novel to an unexpected crescendo without opening the diary (and the truth of the past) to the reader.

    Excellent job!

    Kerry

    • Thanks, Kerry! Means a lot. I keep thinking about the book and wonder if Konrad listened patiently out of love or revenge or some other emotion I can’t fathom. Funny, you recommended the book last December; I read it this November; and it’s defined 2011 as the year I read Embers. That’s how good the book is, as I know you already appreciate. Many cheers. K

      • Kerry says:

        Kevin,

        I would agree that Konrad’s patience is baffling. He neither defends himself nor offers apologies. It does suggest that he has made a peace with the past that Henrik has not.

        I agree that it is that good. It blew me away similarly.

  3. Biblibio says:

    I recently read Márai’s disappointing The Rebels and am now wondering if I did wrong to start with that novel. There are aspects to Márai’s writing I thought very fine, but the weirdly confusing ending (which based on your review would seem like a typical Márai trick) bothered rather than impressed me. Sounds like Embers is the improved The Rebels, though, and based on your review, perhaps I might enjoy Embers a bit more. Worth considering, at the very least…

    • I’m tempted to read The Rebels now, curious to learn if Marai is a one trick pony, I sincerely hope not. Yes, the ending is weirdly confusing, or rather I should just say confusing – and not weirdly so – because the ending is so right. K

  4. Lisa Hill says:

    A super review. I read something by Márai a while ago, but I think I may have missed the point. I’ll know better next time. Thanks:)

  5. nicole says:

    Wonderful review. Love your last two paragraphs—totally agree.

  6. Sandra says:

    I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on Embers, not an easy book to review I think. I enjoyed the story very much myself. I actually purchased a copy after reading a library copy. And the cover (although I’ve seen it on another book) is perfect. My interest was in Hungarian lit as my husband is Hungarian.
    Henrik’s loss of Konrad as a friend was obviously the greater sorrow for him. And I thought that the whole drama of inviting his old friend to actually witness the burning of the unread diary was a bit of “protesting too much” that the betrayal by his wife still stung him. But even taking all his words and actions into account can leave a person unknowable, as you say. A second and closer reading of the novel might be interesting – if one found the time. I will read more Marai. Thank you for an insightful review.

  7. Hi Sandra, thank you for dropping by, and thank you, too, for the kind words. I really appreciate it. My mind snags on the use of the word “witness,” because I think it captures an aspect of the novel that’s very important. Henrik’s a military man schooled in silence. It must cost him a great deal to speak at such length, being so contrary to his nature. But he’s been waiting 41 years to put both is pain and bewilderment on display, so that Konrad may witness among other things the consequences of his actions. At the moment, and I might change my opinion tomorrow, I’m inclined to interpret the destruction of the diary as a charitable act by Henrik on behalf of Konrad, as it to say, Listen I’ll accept your words without comparing them to some task master, your words, not my wife Krizstina’s – yours. The diary is consumed and Konrad chooses silence, which is itself an enigmatic answer of sorts.

  8. Kinna says:

    One of my favorite books. I love the naked portrayal of male affection and friendship. the betrayal, the conversation. Epic. yor review does it justice. Thank you.

  9. […] my bit on Embers, I vowed never to write about them again. […]

  10. […] Embers by Sándor Márai is simply exquisite. Five, 10, 15 years from now, I will remember 2011 as the year I read Embers. Just fantastic. […]

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