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Book Forum: FICTION   |    
Embers
ROBERT MICHELS, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2003;160:2246-2247. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.160.12.2246
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By Sándor Márai; translated by Carol Brown Janeway. New York, Vintage Books, 2003, 224 pp., $12.00 (paper) (hardback published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2001, $21.00).

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Sándor Márai was born in Kassa (then Hungary, later Slovakia) on April 1, 1900 (the precise date will become relevant), and died by suicide in San Diego in 1989, 3 years after the death of his wife of 63 years and 2 years after the death of their only child, an adopted son.

Márai was the eldest of four children; his father was a lawyer, and his mother was from a family of military officers. He began to publish in his teens, was the first to translate Kafka into Hungarian, and wrote more than 50 novels. After toying with Communism, he spent a decade in Germany and France, where he married, and then returned to Budapest in 1929 for a decade of writing. A son was born in 1939 but died a few weeks later. Shortly after that Márai wrote Candles Burn to the End, published in Budapest in 1942 and now in an English translation by Carol Janeway (from the German translation of the Hungarian original), retitled Embers.

Márai opposed Hitler and the Nazis (his wife was Jewish) as well as Stalin and the Communists and defended liberal bourgeois values. After the Communists suppressed his work, he left Hungary in 1948, never to return, and was "rediscovered" only after his death. Embers was a bestseller in Italy and Germany before the English translation.

The title refers to the remnants of the fire into which General Henrik, the hero of the novel, threw the unread diary of Krisztina, his long-deceased wife. Her lover, Konrad, who had been Henrik’s best friend since they were both 10 years old, had just declined Henrik’s offer that they read it together. Konrad also declined to answer the first of Henrik’s two questions, "Did Krisztina know that you wanted to kill me that day in the forest?" (p. 205). He did answer the second question, "Has the true meaning of our lives not been the agony of longing for a woman who is dead?" with, "You know that the answer is yes" (pp. 210–211).

Henrik already knew the facts; what he wanted now was the "truth." However, by the time of their meeting on August 14, 1940, even the truth seemed almost irrelevant. The questions go back to July 2, 1899 (approximately the day that Márai himself was conceived!). Henrik and Konrad, 34-year-old army officers, joined for a hunt at Henrik’s ancestral estate. Henrik recalled, "I felt you raise your gun…take aim…you could not be taking aim at the deer…I couldn’t move because my fate was no longer mine to control…then, very slowly, you let the gun sink" (pp. 144–145). The next day, Konrad fled, Henrik discovered Konrad’s involvement with Krisztina, who was only 21 years old, and time was suspended for all three. Krisztina and Henrik withdrew from each other, never to see each other or to speak again, Krisztina became ill and died, Konrad roamed the earth, and Henrik isolated himself in his private suite. Forty-one years later Konrad returned, and the two friends, now 75, who had shared everything (including Krisztina) in their youth, met for the last time.

What makes the book of interest? It is a psychological novel about a man’s relationship with parents who were somewhat distant but who shaped his values. It also deals with his relationship with a beloved wet nurse who saved his life when he was 8 years old and who was still caring for him when he was 75 and she 91. Finally, it deals with his relationship with his closest friend from childhood, a boy quite different from himself (resonating with the difference between Henrik’s cultured mother and his military father), a friend with whom he enacted dramas of love, loyalty, envy, jealousy, betrayal, revenge, and the transformations of these wrought by time and memory.

Embers is also a social and political novel, for although the great events of the period (World War I, the rise of Communism and Fascism) are barely mentioned, they are reflected in the lives of the characters. The cultural life of society is contrasted with the life of the military, the world of music with the world of the hunt, the world of tradition and the past with the world of change and the future. But perhaps most of all it is a philosophical novel. Márai shares his ideas through Henrik’s thoughts and words.

On friendship:

The need to remove another human being from the world, body and soul, and make him uniquely theirs. For that is the hidden force within both friendship and love. Their friendship was deep and wordless, as are all the emotions that will last a lifetime. And like all great emotions, this one contained within itself both shame and a sense of guilt, for no one may isolate one of his fellows from the rest of humanity with impunity. (p. 36)

Perhaps buried deep in every relationship between two people is some tiny spark of erotic attraction. Here alone in the forest, trying to make sense of life, I thought about that now and then. Friendship, of course, is quite different from the affairs of those driven by morbid impulses to satisfy themselves in some fashion with others of the same sex. The eros of friendship has no need of the body….That would be more of a disturbance than an arousal. And yet, it is eros all the same. Eros is present in love just as it is present in every mutual relationship. (pp. 108–109)

And if a friend fails, because he is not a true friend, is one allowed to attack his character and his weaknesses? What is the value of a friendship in which one person loves the other for his virtue, his loyalty, his steadfastness? What is the value of a love that expects loyalty? Isn’t it our duty to accept the faithless friend as we do the faithful one who sacrifices himself? Is disinterest not the essence of every human relationship? That the more we give, the less we expect? And if a man gives someone his trust through all the years of his youth and stands ready to make sacrifices for him in manhood because of that blind, unconditional devotion, which is the highest thing any one person can offer another, only then to witness the faithlessness and base behavior of his friend, is he permitted to rise up in protest and demand vengeance? And if he does rise up and demand vengeance, having been deceived and abandoned, what does that say about the validity of his friendship in the first place? (pp. 110–111)

On identity:

Life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of the world. We all of us must come to terms with what and who we are, and recognize that this wisdom is not going to earn us any praise, that life is not going to pin a medal on us for recognizing and enduring our own vanity or egoism or baldness or our pot-belly. No, the secret is that there’s no reward and we have to endure our characters and our natures as best we can, because no amount of experience or insight is going to rectify our deficiencies, our self-regard, or our cupidity. We have to learn that our desires do not find any real echo in the world. We have to accept that the people we love do not love us, or not in the way we hope. We have to accept betrayal and disloyalty, and, hardest of all, that someone is finer than we are in character or intelligence. (p. 135)

On character:

Things do not simply happen to one.…One can also shape what happens to one. One shapes it, summons it, takes hold of the inevitable. It’s the human condition. A man acts, even when he knows from the very onset that his act will be fatal. He and his fate are inseparable, they have a pact with each other that molds them both. It is not true that fate slips silently into our lives. It steps in through the door that we have opened, and we invite it to enter. No one is strong enough or cunning enough to avert by word or deed the misfortune that is rooted in the iron laws of his character and his life. (p. 170)

Márai’s beloved world was falling apart when he wrote this book, although the worst was yet to come. The life he treasured was about to become the life of the past. Perhaps its most important legacies are words, ideas, and works of art such as this one.

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