11. 29. 2006. 09:06

A patented writer of the bourgeoisie

Sándor Márai: Embers

Sándor Márai’s novel burst onto the literary scene at the Frankfurt Book Fair of 1999, thanks to the English and the German translations. In Hungarian the book is having its renaissance. Still, from time to time, we hear voices which talk, in tones of disapproval or apology, about it being overrated, bemoaning the stormy success of a work supposedly inferior to other pieces of the oeuvre.

Although Hungarian readers associate Márai chiefly with Egy polgár vallomásai (Confessions of a Bourgeois) and Kassai polgárok (Burghers of Kassa), the international reception is causing a "rebirth" of the Márai corpus. If we ask those people who have read Embers, the book that tops sales lists, they would certainly call it the absolute cornerstone of the oeuvre.

According to a blurb in one of its editions, “This powerful, highly suggestive novel, published in 1942, sheds a blinding light down the alleyways of friendship, loyalty and betrayal. Two old friends meet after an interval of several decades, and talk through an entire night. As they survey the past, one emerges as the accused, the other as the accuser: one had betrayed, indeed almost killed, his friend, seduced his wife, and irrevocably ruined his life. However, the tragedy was not caused by a momentary lapse – the disintegration of an entire world order also meant the collapse of traditional moral values.” It is not hard to imagine how the taste and senses of wider audiences are hit dead in the middle by the key words: friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and if all of this even spoils somebody’s life forever, success is guaranteed. At the same time it is a great achievement of author and reader alike that tension never lags throughout the monologue which constitutes the novel, the arch of the well-known love triangle narrative stays unbroken throughout.

The story, which takes place within the grand monologue of a single night, gives the analysis of a friendship and a love affair. Two men, survivors from a threesome, wage a battle of words over the memory of their dead friend – and the legacy of a bygone world which may never have existed. The two characters are Henrik, “the general”, a soldier true to his cause to the death, and Konrád, an artist who had chosen a military career out of necessity. The attitudes and life strategies they represent are polar opposites in every respect. Students at a military school, a basic symbol of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, are bound by ties of unconditional childhood friendship, an experience which is not granted to all people. “This is an emotion known only to men. It is called friendship.”

The text first imitates a dialogue, then gradually swells into the monologue of the general, punctuated only by the single-word answers and odd gestures of the other party. This way the story becomes a memento to the military past, the world of the Monarchy and its idealised aristocratic morality. A patented writer of the bourgeoisie, Márai creates an imaginary aristocratic world within the town of Kassa in this novel, a symbolic space which never actually existed anywhere at any time. This is a world ruled by loyalty, passion, self-sacrifice, and, of course, by the depository of all these virtues – man. The grand emotions require no explanation, no words need to be wasted on them, as immaculate moral character is rewarded by seemingly perfect harmony, the myth of finding the ultimate object of one’s search. “But the woman waved me on. We had something to share.” The soldier of the Monarchy, guardian to the existing order, cannot come to terms with the failure spelt out by betrayal, the collapse of a marriage and friendship that all had believed (pretended) was stable. In his search for an explanation he retreats into the land of words, becoming his own interrogator, a wordy yet speechless aristocrat, an embittered old man. Márai’s recurring character types, such as the soldier symbolising order and rationality, and the artist embodying the irrational, remain the only tools for creating and sustaining tension. Two value systems are set up as two extremes, meant to model the basic mechanisms of the world. They are outlined from the angle of the old general and thus point toward the ultimate moral victory of the idealised, simplified and naïve world view of the Monarchy. This battle is also the last chord in the final agony of the two characters, legitimizing the victory of the general with the indelible stamp of death.

The other side, that of the accused Konrád, claims privileges such as the offended pride, headstrong survival instinct and over-sensitivity of poverty. Music, the only domain where he thrives and prospers, is an unconquerable land for the general, drilled in order and discipline. Konrád’s unpredictable and inexplicable defects of character make the other character, with a far simpler view of the world, feel like an alien and an outsider. One dramatic climax in the story is the description of Konrád’s attempt at murder: he tries to snipe the general while out hunting together. Whether this was premeditated or caused by a sudden impulse we will never know. Needless to say, the general is instinctively aware of the gun pointed at the back of his head, but he maintains his dignity and waits for Konrád to decide whether he is to live or die. For the old man, lost in the memories of the past, is also intrigued whether he is doing all this out of courage or cowardice.

The idealised world of order is riddled with life lies, looming visions of wives exposed, friends humiliated, chambermaids maltreated. The "world view" of the aristocrat is a handful of clichés – the tropics make you old, love makes you young, the Malayans just stare with their great big brown eyes and keep “dropping” babies. Things important and valuable are elevated over other things by their nobility and rank. You don’t need lots of words for that – it is enough to have breeding. The general’s boring sense of superiority is supposed to be justified by time: he understands and even accepts the steps taken by his opponent, he seamlessly reconstructs the fraud that took place, and he does not take revenge on the friend who had seduced his wife – or rather, his revenge is not physical (the valet looking on with pitying eyes is the only one who deserves to be half strangled), only verbal aggression. The bitterness of old age, the endless repetitions of a familiar story breed the false appearance that the betrayed general is wise. The chief devices used in the monologue are fleeting allusion, a broken, whimsical narrative style, and the effort to hammer into the reader’s consciousness the much repeated key words, like staunchness, loyalty and selflessness. The aim is no more complex either: to guide the reader to the insight that the past was a world incomparably more pure, more Christian, more liveable-in, where cuckold and seducer retained their dignity throughout their act.

The candles burn to stumps, as the original Hungarian title has it, since a night storm blows the electric fuse, thus preparing the ground for nostalgic time-travelling where all that is gold is noble, and where the characters while away their time polishing their own names until they shine, and only very occasionally interrupt themselves by a self-ironical remark. 

I started out by claiming that the success of Márai’s novel was no surprise. Yet it is somewhat saddening to consider that this self-seeking nostalgia was the best he could produce in a year like 1942. The glory of the bygone world is not quite so obvious when viewed from the perspective of the mud of World War II, nor is it true that one has a heart-felt wish to return to such a simplistic, intolerant, pathos-ridden and self-glorifying world. Márai’s purportedly philosophical lines often fall flat as platitudes, and his sonorous sentences reveal the abyss of a lack of real content. The text may reflect excellently the tastes and flavours of an age; it is quite easy to project the tones and facial gestures of the actors of the 1940’s behind the story. It is probably for the same reason – for its neatly rounded stories, the easy flow of tears – that we consume this book so avidly to this day. There is no need to deny the merits of the story, its clever sense of mystery, its vibrant tension, but it is equally pointless to expect too much from the text. It is rather like the narrator himself: even and loyal, arrogant and naïve, but also offended and sentimental.

Anna Benedek
Sándor Márai: Embers
Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway
New York: Knopf, 2001; London: Penguin, 2003

Tags: Sándor Márai: Embers