Embers Rises from the Ashes

By Anna Porter
The Globe and Mail, March 21, 2009

Love story is as absorbing today as it was when she first read it Anna Porter rediscovers Embers, by Sandor Marai

When I first read this book in Hungarian, the author’s own language, its title would have translated as The Candles Burn Down, much more imaginative and resonant than the present one. Embers is the English version of the German title, Die Glut , the English edition of the book is translated by Carol Brown Janeway from the German translation of the original, thus twice removed from what Marai had written. Several critics more familiar with the art of translation claim that the style has lost much in this distancing from the original. Others, like The Times and The Observer, find it “magnificent,” “spellbinding,” “elegiac,” “compelling.” As I do.

It is extraordinary that this novel, written in 1942, all but forgotten for many years (except for a few fans like my mother, who pressed it on me when I was 10), revived to become an international bestseller in 1999, the talk of that year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, top of the charts in Germany and England. And it is as absorbing a read today as it was when I first read it in 1956.

The story is that of two friends and the woman they both loved. Henrik, a retired army general, has waited 41 years to confront Konrad, an artist and wanderer, with the question of what happened between him and Henrik’s beautiful wife, Krisztina. The setting is an old-fashioned manor house or small castle, blue candlelight, faded family portraits, grand staircase, pillars … but this is just the frame, the real setting is memory.

“Memory has a wonderful way of separating the wheat from the chaff. There can be some great moment and ten, twenty years later one realizes that it had no effect whatsoever. And then once day, one remembers a hunt or a passage in a book or this room. Last time we sat here, there were three of us. Krisztina was alive …”

Each man’s memories of his past – a time when they were friends – is what occupies the centre of the picture. I will not spoil the gripping suspense for those who will wish to enjoy this wonderful book by revealing more of the tale. It is enough to say there is mystery and suspense, each man tells his tale, one reluctantly, the other with relish, and through them, we understand the woman whose absence is at the heart of the novel.

In a mere 213 pages, this master storyteller explores some of the great themes of literature: the meanings of friendship and betrayal, love and hatred, of cowardice, bravery and deceit, but also the widening gap between the old world and the new, the concept of “the other,” someone different from oneself and one’s peers.

When this book first was first published, in 1942, Europe was already in the throes of Nazism and the hatreds that ignited the German war against “the other.” Later, Marai, who had thought of himself as one of the last survivors of the old bourgeoisie, would say of his time, “It is a shame to live – it is a shame to be alive.” He was in Berlin as a reporter in 1933, filed stories about the rise of Nazism and wrote an anti-fascist novel called The Messiah in the Sport Palace .

Marai wrote poetry, essays, diaries, newspaper columns, fiction, plays and translations. His siege diaries are extraordinary, not only for what he observed but for how he details his method of survival: reading Aristotle, Shakespeare, Plato, Montaigne, Villon and Spengler, to mention only a few, without food and by candlelight.

Embers was his 32nd published book. He went on to write 35 more, most of them while in exile from his country and its language. He was published by Toronto’s Weller Publishers, run by an old friend who supported him through the years of dire poverty and lack of international recognition.

He would not allow his work to be published in Hungary under communism; 1989 brought not only the end of the central European totalitarian system he loathed, but also the end of his life. In his last letter to a friend, he talked of how life had already slipped away from him. He could no longer write or read.

Near the end of Embers, there is a passage about aging. “We age slowly. First, our pleasure in life and other people declines, everything gradually becomes so real, we understand the significance of everything. … Then our bodies age: not all at once. First is the eyes, or the legs, or the heart. We age by instalments. And then suddenly our spirits begin to age. … And when the longing for joy disappears, all that are left are memories or vanity …”

Sandor Marai killed himself on Feb. 22, 1989.