Embers' story has been recapped many times in other reviews—I’ll reveal parts of it here as well, so you’ve been warned. The key, though, isn’t the plot (which barely exists) but how it is revealed. A retired general from the army, Henrik, awaits an old friend he hasn’t seen in 41 years. They have dinner and Henrik talks all evening about their relationship. As dawn approaches, Henrik asks his friend Konrad two questions (OK, he cheats and asks several more) which Konrad declines to answer. Konrad leaves. There…don’t you want to read it now?
Obviously that only hints at the story and none of its appeal. There are many topics explored in this brief book. Márai spends plenty of time allowing Henrik to muse about friendship. After all, Henrik has thought about their friendship during his forty-one years of semi-solitude and delivers a brilliant (if somewhat artificial feeling) monologue on the topic. More importantly though is how friendship and other matters of loyalty and duty interact with desire and passion.
"Do you also believe that what gives our lives meaning is the passion that suddenly invades us heart, soul, and body, and burns in us forever, no matter what else happens in our lives? And that if we have experienced this much, then perhaps we haven't lived in vain? Is passion so deep and terrible and magnificent and inhuman? Is it indeed about desiring any one person, or is it about desiring desire itself?"
It’s clear that Konrad initially represents just such a passion but Henrik develops in him a passion that grew for forty-one years. On the surface, Henrik’s musings seek to denounce his friend and exact a perverse sort of revenge while at the same time attempting to understand the passions that drove them apart. Theirs isn’t the only friendship in the book—the bond between Henrik and his former nurse, Nini, proves to be powerful, too, but comes with additional dimensions beyond the connection between the two men.
The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire lies as a backdrop for a story of friends and loves, representing more than just a country’s end:
”My homeland,” says the guest, “no longer exists. My homeland was Poland, Vienna, this house, the barracks in the city, Galicia, and Chopin. What’s left? Whatever mysterious substance held it all together no longer works. Everything’s come apart. My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded. When that happens, the only thing to do is go away.”
The attempt to recapture or recreate the past produces, at best, a pale replica. Over the course of the book the reader realizes there is much more meaning in the question and answer between Henrik and Nini at the book’s beginning:
The nurse said, “Do you want it to be the way it used to be?”
“Yes,” said the General. “Exactly the same. The way it was last time.”
The previous time wasn’t that pleasant and this dinner and talk provides just as much discomfort. The reader gets the feeling that Henrik’s obsession with making things just the same goes deeper, even when he knows it can’t be recaptured. The reason for that goes beyond the personal and looks at events occurring around them.
“Perhaps this world is coming to its end…perhaps some elemental event has taken place that is not merely the war, but something more; perhaps something has found its time in us as well, and now it’s being settled with steel and fire, where once it was settled with words.”
This (and many other quotes) explains the ultimate point of the novel (to me)— Márai expands Henrik’s musing about the break in the men’s relationship, putting the breakdown of order occurring around them in context.
Henrik seems to mention their age or impending death every other page. But there is another aspect of aging that creeps in during the passage of time:
One spends a lifetime preparing for something. First one suffers the wound. Then one plans revenge. And waits. He had been waiting a long time now. He no longer knew when it was that the wound had become a thirst for revenge, and the thirsting had turned to waiting. Time preserves everything, but as it does so, it fades things to the colorlessness of ancient photographs fixed on metal plates. Light and time erase the contours and distinctive shading of the faces. One has to angle the image this way and that until it catches the light in a particular way and one can make out the person whose features have been absorbed into the blank surface of the plate. It is the same with our memories. But then one day light strikes from a certain angle and one recaptures a face again.
Henrik emphasizes that the passage of time helps bring things into focus, helping a person realize what is important versus what isn’t. In addition, his reflection during the forty-one years shows he has already answered the questions he asks, his answers coming back to the ultimate answer—how one has lived his life:
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 did you actually want?… What could you actually achieve?…At what points were you loyal or disloyal or brave or a coward? And one answers as best one can, honestly or dishonestly; that’s not so important. What’s important is that one finally answers with one’s life.
There’s much more discussed in these pages, such as the relationships between facts and truth, action and reflection, logic and emotion, and belonging and mastering. Márai unveils the story much like a musical piece, motifs reappearing every now and then, alternating fast and slow passages, etc. And yet…I walk away from the book not fully satisfied. Don’t get me wrong—it’s just that some things feel too staged. At times I thought this would make a better play, and evidently, judging from the reviews of just such an adaption, theater critics thought it worked better as a novel. But there are other moments when the symbolism or the monologue seems too forced, such as when Henrik doesn’t allow Konrad to answer his first question, rattling on for several more pages. You don’t have to be impatient like me (although it helps) to think “Shut up. Shut up! Shut! The! F! Up! You’ve prepared an intricate and detailed monologue for 41 years, spanning over 100 pages, and you can’t get the damn question right?” But then that’s the point of the whole novel, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter how or if Konrad answers.
Even with some reservations I still highly recommend the book and I look forward to reading more from Márai. Feel free to add your thoughts on the book in the comments...