by Sándor Márai, translated by Carol Brown Janeway
(Alfred A. Knopf)
Wall Street Journal
October 26, 2001
by Bella Stander
One may not be able to tell a book by its cover, but the satin-textured jacket of Embers, with its haunting image of a 19th century noblewoman, is sure to seduce readers who might otherwise bypass a translation of an unknown 60-year-old novel. Originally published in Budapest in 1942, Embers, along with other works by the once-revered Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, languished in obscurity for more than 50 years, first because he was anti-fascist, later on because he ardently fought Communism. Márai fled his native land in the 1950s and eventually settled in San Diego, where he committed suicide in 1989.
Embers, the first of Márai’s novels to be translated into English (Knopf promises more), opens on a stifling summer day in an ancient castle deep in the Carpathian Mountains. After receiving a mysterious letter, an aged general makes elaborate preparations to host an unnamed guest for dinner. Márai builds up atmosphere and tension with descriptions of the castle’s furnishings as much as the general’s reminiscences about the place: “Door-latches gave off the traces of a once-trembling hand, the excitement of a moment long gone, so that even now another hand hesitated to press down on them. Every house in which passion has loosed itself on people in all its fury exudes such intangible presences.” But who experienced that passion--the general’s mother (whose portrait he examines) or his long-dead wife (whose portrait is conspicuously missing), or both--and with whom?
Bit by tantalizing bit, the past comes to light: the general’s parents’ unhappy marriage; his bosom friendship with impoverished Konrad; their attending school and serving in the military together; the general’s marriage to Konrad’s childhood friend; the happy threesome dining together; and the fall day in 1899 when the two inseparable friends went hunting and then didn’t see each other again for 41 years.
Obviously there is great significance to this meeting. After so much time, the general is determined to establish the facts of what happened, and thus arrive at the truth. In so doing, he peppers his guest with questions about loyalty, love, deceit and cowardice. But as Márai brilliantly demonstrates in Janeway’s graceful translation, sometimes facts don’t necessarily establish the truth--and sometimes neither makes any difference in the overall scheme of things. His words resonate: “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.”
© 2001 Bella Stander