Embers by Sándor Márai

November 8, 2011

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.


a diary bound in yellow velvet is thrown in the fire

November 7, 2011

Last Christmas, I did what most charitable and seasonally minded folks do — I asked for lots of gifts. And blessing of blessings, I received them, gratefully. I shortlisted most of them and finally got round to reading Embers, which was gifted to me by Kerry of Hungry Like the Woolfe. What an amazing book! One cannot do better than read it. I dare you to try. It’s absolutely incredible, amazing, stunning, add your own superlative of choice. Because it’s a gorgeous passage and because it’s the culmination of one of literature’s most intense, enigmatic and emotionally fraught scenes, and finally because I’ll refer to it in my next post, I wanted to share this wonderful description with you. Enjoy! “With an almost lazy gesture, he throws the little book into the embers of the fire, which begins to glow darkly as it receives its sacrifice, then slowly absorbs it in a welling haze of smoke as tiny flames lick up out of the ashes. They sit and watch, still as statues, as the fire comes to life, flares as if in pleasure at the unexpected booty, then begins to pant and gnaw at it until suddenly the flames burst upwards, the wax seal is melted, the yellow velvet burns in an acrid cloud, and the pages, aged to the color of ancient parchment, are riffled by an unseen hand; there, suddenly, in the blaze is Krisztina’s handwriting, the spiky letters once set on paper by fingers now long since dead, and then letters, paper, book, all turn to ashes like the hand that once inscribed them.”