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February 2018: Embers (Marai)

posted Mar 17, 2018, 6:17 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Our last book club meeting was held on February 7th at Deebie’s house in Berkeley.  There were nine of us in attendance.  Ginny won the award for longest commute, as she joined us once again during her annual visit to the Bay Area from her home in Southampton, UK.  In a sense, Ginny’s return to the group fit right in with the topic of discussion:  Sándor Marai’s Embers, a novel about two friends who meet after a long absence.


Ostensibly, the action of the novel takes place over a single day in the life of an elderly man who lives in an isolated castle in the Hungarian wilderness.   As the novel begins, this man, Henrik (or “the General”), receives a note from Konrad, and old friend who has returned to the area for the first time in 41 years.  Henrik invites Konrad to dinner that night and then spends the rest of the day mulling over the history of their friendship and the events that lead to the friends’ long separation and to the destruction of Henrik’s marriage.  When Konrad arrives, Henrik continues to review these memories, as if setting out a case and inviting his friend to offer a defense.  When the evening ends, Konrad leaves, and it is debatable what exactly has been resolved. 


Our reactions to the novel were a little mixed, although we all enjoyed the beauty of the writing.  Through the voice of his main character, Márai describes the declining decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a masterful combination of nostalgic longing and critical insight that invites the reader to share the sentiments of the characters without slipping into the overly sentimental.   The author brings us convincingly into the mind of Henrik and, once there, the character’s geographic and mental isolation feels both claustrophobic and intimate.  We are given a fascinating view into the complexity and depth of male friendship and into the ways the characters’ relationships were shaped by the cultural conventions of Henrik’s upper-class world, a world in which both Konrad and Henrik’s wife, Krisztina, are outsiders.  


As readers, we struggled to determine the degree to which the central tragedy in the book was a result of these conventions as opposed to the character traits of the individuals involved.   This inquiry was important because many of us found it difficult to like Henrik.  Although he seems desperate for some sort of explanation from Konrad, he never gives him an opportunity to speak.  In fact, several times, Henrik asks Konrad a direct question, only to interject and dismiss the question, or to answer it himself, before Konrad can get a word out.  More disturbing, perhaps, is the silencing of Krisztina.  Her voice is almost absent from the novel.  In fact, she is quoted directly only once.  In fact, at one point, Henrik both figuratively and literally silences her by tossing her writings on the fire.   Henrik’s complete domination of the narrative was frustrating, and it led several us to find the novel ultimately unsatisfying.  Still, perhaps this dissatisfaction was part of Márai’s point.  At the end, Henrik accepts that he never fully understood the two individuals that he loved the most.  Nonetheless, he loved them passionately, and perhaps this was enough.