Sandor Marai was born in Kassa, Hungary (now Kosice, Slovakia) in 1900. The Austro- Hungarian Empire, with capitals in Vienna and Budapest, was a monarchy and power in Europe between 1867 and post-World War 1 in 1918. One could spend years studying all the aspects of the creation of this entity and the ways in which it affected the lives of its people: voting rights, economy, treatment of Jews and ethnic peoples and so on. Wikipedia has reams of information. Some of this knowledge is relevant to Marais’ story which is set in 1940. His protagonist the old general and his father the General before him were from the ruling class and fought in wars and were decorated for valour.
Marais himself supported the Communist takeover and settled in Budapest in 1928. But he was critical of the Nazis and left Hungary after World War 2 and settled in Dan Diego. He wrote forty-six books, but only six have been translated into English and his work is not well-known.
After his wife died in 1986, he became ill and depressed and committed suicide in 1989.
Embers is his best-known book and has been performed as a radio play starring Patrick Stewart. A film starring Sean Connery was mooted but never came off. Much to the chagrin of many critics it has not been translated from the original Hungarian but from a German translation. The title in Hungarian means, ‘The Candles Burn Down to the Stump.’
There have been rhapsodic reviews of this book using words like, ‘wise’, ‘moving’, ‘pertinent’ where others found it ‘far from perfect.’
The story is slight. An old man, living in splendid isolation in a castle mostly closed off, and attended by a number of devoted servants, has withdrawn from life forty-one years ago. In 1899 something happened, which caused him to cease all contact with others except for the occasional meeting to give orders to a steward, or with his loyal Nanny, Nini, now ninety-one years old, but still running his household. But on the day the story begins he has received word of a visitor who is coming that day; the visitor he has been waiting to receive for forty-one years.
This narrative is a reflection on the past through the eyes of one character. It has been described as a conversation or debate, but it is essentially a monologue. The guest has his brief period of accounting for the missing years, but the story of their friendship and their differences all come from the general. And the charm of the work comes from the writing; exquisite descriptive poetic writing.
I can’t feel much in common with a man whose greatest passion is hunting or another who says, describing his time living in the tropics
Everything feels sticky and greasy. You’re in your house, the Malays are singing. The woman you’ve taken to live with you sits motionless in a corner of the room and watches you. They can sit for hours like that, staring. At first you pay no attention. The you start you feel nervous, and order them out of the room… Scream at her and she smiles. Strike her and she smiles… They are constantly having children, though nobody mentions this, least of all they themselves.
This is the longest speech the general’s visitor makes, and it certainly didn’t make me feel sympathetically disposed to him.
But here he is as a young man, playing a Chopin duet with the general’s mother, for he is a music lover, and it is this that will always prevent him from becoming a dedicated soldier like his friend.
They sat straight-backed at the piano, leaning away from the keys a little and yet bound to them, as if music itself were driving an invisible team of fiery mythical horses riding the storm that circle the world, and they were bracing their bodies to maintain a firm grip on the reins in this explosive gallop of unshackled energies. And then, with a single chord, they ended. The evening sun was slanting through the large windows, and motes of gold were spinning in its rays, as if the unearthly racing chariot had stirred up a whirlwind of dust on its way to ruin and void.
Two men, seventy-five years old, waiting for death, but also wanting to address the cause of the rift that lies between them. They are not people of our time. They are used to privilege and not afraid of violence. Here they are, after a long rich dinner, readying themselves to have the conversation they have never had.
Silently, wobbling a little like shadows on a wall, they walk in this ghostly glow from the dining room through one cold salon after another until they reach a room whose only furniture consists of a grand piano with its lid raised and three chairs around a great-bellied hot porcelain stove. They sit down and look out through the long white curtains at the dark landscape… they each light a cigar, and sit in silence warming themselves. The heat from the logs in the stove pours out in steady waves and the candlelight dances above their heads. The door has been closed. They are alone.
Written in the middle of a war, this story celebrates an existence that was rapidly fading then, and now no longer exists, by an interesting and very different writer.
His book Portraits of a Marriage translated by George Szertes is now on my list.