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Remains of the Day

EMBERS, A Novel, By Sandor Marai, Translated from the German version of the Hungarian original by Carol Brown Janeway, Alfred A. Knopf: 218 pp., $21

November 11, 2001|THOMAS MCGONIGLE | Thomas McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."

On a summer day in 1940 in a Hungarian castle, Henrik, a 75-year-old general, is waiting for Konrad, his closest friend from childhood. They haven't seen each other in 41 years--not since a hunt they had been on in July 1899.

Eventually Konrad arrives. Dinner is served. The general talks and asks a few questions. The visitor departs. The reader of "Embers" will have been very quietly nailed to the spot by this short, mesmerizing novel depicting the nature and limits of friendship. Sandor Marai was a writer whose entire oeuvre of more than 45 books and thousands of newspaper articles had been nearly wiped from the face of the Earth. Well-known to experts of Hungarian literature, Marai was prominent in Hungary's literary circles in the 1930s and early 1940s, but persecution by the Communists forced him to leave in 1948. In 1989, Marai committed suicide in San Diego. Thanks to this first English translation of "Embers," our ever-shrinking world of culture seems a little bigger.

First published in Budapest in 1942, "Embers" was easily overlooked because it made no grand claims upon readers and didn't offer a probing investigation of the political reality of that fateful moment. It succeeds now just because of that: Situated beyond the claims of the murderous ideologies of the time, fascism and communism, Marai's novel asserts the primacy of the individual experience, which is always in danger of being swept away. Moreover, Marai himself was never tempted into collusion by either fascism or communism, and he is nearly unique in that regard, being himself proudly a representative of the liberal (in the old sense of the word) Catholic bourgeois intelligentsia.

Carefully, Marai sets the scene of the dinner in the castle where the general lives. He thinks of his father, an officer of the Guards in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and of his mother, a French countess, who came from the glittering French court to this distant place in the middle of the previous century where, "[i]n February the cold drove the wolves down out of the mountains; the servants and the huntsmen built a bonfire of brush wood in the park, and the wolves, under its spell, circled it and growled. The officer of the guards drew a knife and went after them; his wife watched from the window.

"There was something insurmountable between them. But they loved each other."

Marai teases out that connection, that silence, that separation and how it reappears in the marriage of the general and his own wife, Krisztina. The general is also thinking throughout this novel about friendship: "One spent a lifetime preparing for something. First one suffers the wound. Then one plans revenge.

Years ago, when they were 10, the general and Konrad met in an elite military academy. Marai is exquisite in his description of that friendship: "They lived together like twins in their mother's womb. For this they had no need of one of those pacts of the kind that is common among boys of their age, who swear friendship with comical solemn rituals.... Their friendship was deep and wordless, as are all the emotions that will last a lifetime. And like all great emotions, this one contained within itself both shame and a sense of guilt, for no one may isolate one of his fellows from the rest of humanity with impunity."

Marai's commanding gift for description is shown when Konrad and the general meet: "The two old men looked at each other with the knowledge that only the aged can bring to the vagaries of the body: with an absolute attention to physical evidence, seeking the remaining signs of vital energy, the faint traces of joie de vivre still illuminating their faces and energizing their bearing.

"'No,' said Konrad seriously. 'Neither of us is getting any younger."'

At this moment in their meeting, however, the reviewer must be discreet because any description of the novel's central event will destroy the spell that every reader is entitled to in reading "Embers." Let it be said that in every way the novel is satisfying. There are no loose ends, no cheap avoidances, no dangling possibilities for a sequel. Both the urgency and the necessity of Marai's novel are contained in a thought of the general's: "One's life, viewed as a whole, is always the answer to the most important questions. Along the way, does it matter what one says, what words and principles one chooses to justify oneself? At the very end, one's answers to the questions the world has posed with such relentlessness are to be found in the facts of one's life. Questions such as: Who are you? ... What's important is that one answers with one's life."

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