Sándor Márai is a relatively recent rediscovery on the stage of 20th-century European literature. A Hungarian of mixed heritage, he travelled and settled all over Europe, working as a writer and critic in the years between the two World Wars. His decisions to write in his native language and keep a very private life meant he never gained fame outside of Hungary, and so his works have only recently been translated.
This kind of story makes for good sales, and for a while, everybody was reading Márai (although I can only speak for the German market here, where translated literature generally has a much bigger share). Embers is my first encounter with the author and his style, and I can see how the descriptions of the Austro-Hungarian heyday and its many characters can capture an audience. The past is always appealing, and Márai’s own experience of it makes the novel reassuringly authentic.
The setting is simple: It is 1940, and Henrik, an aged Hungarian general, finally gets a visitor he has been waiting to see for 41 years. The novel narrates one single night, in which the general’s best friend Konrád, who disappeared mysteriously in 1899, faces the questions that have been haunting Henrik all his life.
The first part of the book briefly introduces the main characters and their history. Mirroring the general’s dream-like existence and constant occupation with the past, the facts are presented in a very compacted style, the products of a mind that has been ordering them for decades and is now describing them without emotion. Although very interesting in literary terms, this makes it hard for the reader to connect, and I had a hard time wanting to continue with the novel. Fairly quickly though, we reach the main part of the novel, the confrontation of the two friends, which is a monologue by Henrik, detailing the facts he has come to terms with over the years, and merely asking Konrád two questions which he hope will help both of them find closure.
As a novel, Embers is more interesting and clever than it is moving. The whole thing feels incredibly well planned, almost like a one-man play. Stylistically, everything fits, but even though the story culminates in an existential question, I found myself not caring much. I could tell Marái was a journalist, which in itself is nothing terrible, of course, but sacrifices the emotion that lies at the heart of such a story. I will read more of his novels, because they deal with a place and time I would like to know more about, but it will feel like a bit of work.