Somewhere in Central Europe — the country is never named — an old aristocrat has been waiting for more than forty years. At last, his closest friend and worst betrayer is returning, for one night of accusations, questions, and answers. The two loved each other as young men, one rich, one poor, until one terrible event parted them. Now, in Sándor Márai’s Embers, the castle darkens around them as their conversation washes back and forth: friendship, love, betrayal, honor, pride.
To be honest, this was one of the strangest, most interesting books I’ve read in quite a long time. That’s not to say I liked it much. The characters were not inviting, and there wasn’t almost anything in terms of plot. But I found myself riveted by the balance of silence and speech, presence and absence, coming to be and passing away, foolishness and wisdom. And the prose! This book is rich, rich in language. I’ll try to show you a little of what I mean.
When Henrik, the old General, receives word that his friend Konrad will be arriving, he arranges an elaborate, formal dinner for the two of them. It’s to take the form of the last dinner they ate together, but one person is missing from the table: the General’s wife, Krisztina, who died thirty years earlier. This absence is the more important because of the near-total absence of women in the entire story. Henrik wants Konrad to listen to him, for almost two hundred pages — listen to the story and analysis of their close friendship, the seeds of Konrad’s resentment, the affair that drove them apart, the motivations of Konrad’s flight to the tropics and Henrik’s subsequent frozen abandonment of his wife — and in all of this talking (during which Konrad himself barely speaks a word), Krisztina, though playing the pivotal and necessary role of temptation, has absolutely no voice. Instead, it is the male relationship that takes pride of place: male friendship, of which women are incapable; male honor, of which women know nothing; male pride, to which women are not trained.
Women are not the only absence in this book, however. It becomes increasingly clear that Henrik’s long monologue dwells not only on the exclusion of women, but brings forth an entire world that is now absent. The old, pre-WWI days of national glory are over. There will be no more hunts at the castle, no more days of young, fit men training and fighting together, eating and drinking together, indulging their masculine tastes. All that is gone, and a new, weaker, more degenerate world has taken its place.
The way this book was written was lush in the extreme.
The General went into his room, washed his hands, and stepped over to his high, narrow standing desk; arranged on its surface of unstained green felt were pens, ink, and a perfectly aligned stack of those notebooks covered in black-and-white-checked oilcloth commonly used by schoolchildren for their homework. In the middle of the desk stood a green-shaded lamp, which the General switched on, as the room was dark. On the other side of the closed blinds, in the scorched, withered garden, summer ignited a last blaze like an arsonist setting the fields on fire in senseless fury before making his escape.
This quotation will give you a sense of another quality of the writing: every page, every paragraph, almost every sentence is rife with metaphor, with simile, with disguise. Everything must be compared to something else; nothing is allowed simply to be itself. “He lived here as an invalid lives within the space he had learned to inhabit. As if the room had been tailored to his body.” Or again, “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 traveling puppet show.” Everything, everything is hidden — except what should have been hidden. And of that, the General says, “Between any two people, a woman and a man, the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ are always so lamentably the same… the entire constellation is despicably straightforward.” But nothing here is straightforward.
I can’t tell you how much this fascinated me. I study a French author, very popular during the 1920s and ’30s, called Henry de Montherlant. His own approach to the second World War was identical to this. He eulogized the strong, masculine approach, using solitary knights as his example; so does Sándor Márai. Montherlant talked about the harsh rule of the Japanese bushido, the honor code of Japanese knights; Márai adduces instances of the Arab understanding of honor killing. Montherlant uses the metaphor of monks to describe a small group of close male friends (something weak women cannot understand); Márai does exactly the same. Of course, Montherlant was a collaborator with the Nazis, and, as it turns out, a pedophile; Márai, on the other hand, was ferociously anti-Fascist. He and Montherlant both committed suicide. What that means, I couldn’t say.
As I read this book, I had a growing conviction. I knew it was insane, but I couldn’t shake it. I had a picture of the old General, telling his servants to prepare the meal, eating, drinking before the fire, and delivering this forty-one-year-old monologue to…. no one. Perhaps Konrad never came. Perhaps he’d died years ago, and the General had been waiting in his ancient pride and loneliness for too long. Perhaps this meal was prepared each week, or even each night: the candles, the successive courses, the wines. The servants, indulging their master’s whims, his rage, his ever-increasing solipsism about a man and a woman and a life gone by. Would it matter?
Near the very end of the book, the General asks Konrad his final question. But first, he shows Konrad the diary he took from Krisztina, the only witness left that could testify to the truth of Konrad’s answer. Before they can read it — before we can hear a word in the only voice she has left — he burns the diary. And then, Konrad declines to answer the question. The silence of this book is louder, much, much louder, than its words.