Originally published in 1942 and now rediscovered to international acclaim, this taut and exquisitely structured novel by the Hungarian master Sandor Marai conjures the melancholy glamour of a decaying empire and the disillusioned wisdom of its last heirs.
In a secluded woodland castle an old General prepares to receive a rare visitor, a man who was once his closest friend but who he has not seen in forty-one years. Over the ensuing hours host and guest will fight a duel of words and silences, accusations and evasions. They will exhume the memory of their friendship and that of the General’s beautiful, long-dead wife. And they will return to the time the three of them last sat together following a hunt in the nearby foresta hunt in which no game was taken but during which something was lost forever. Embers is a classic of modern European literature, a work whose poignant evocation of the past also seems like a prophetic glimpse into the moral abyss of the present
About the Author
Sándor Márai was born in Kassa, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1900, and died in San Diego in 1989. He rose to fame as one of the leading literary novelists in Hungary in the 1930s. Profoundly antifascist, he survived World War II, but persecution by the Communists drove him from the country in 1948, first to Italy, then to the United States. He is the author of a body of work now being rediscovered and which Knopf is translating into English.
A NOTE ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Carol Brown Janeway's translations include Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments, Marie de Hennezel's Intimate Death, Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, Jan Philipp Reemtsma's In the Cellar, Hans-Ulrich Treichel's Lost, Zvi Kolitz's Yosl Rakover Talks to God, and Benjamin Lebert's Crazy.
Read an Excerpt
In the morning, the old general spent a considerable time in the wine cellars with his winegrower inspecting two casks of wine that had begun to ferment. He had gone there at first light, and it was past eleven o'clock before he had finished drawing off the wine and returned home. Between the columns of the veranda, which exuded a musty smell from its damp flagstones, his gamekeeper was standing waiting for him, holding a letter.
"What do you want?"the General demanded brusquely, pushing back his broad-brimmed straw hat to reveal a flushed face. For years now, he had neither opened nor read a single letter. The mail went to the estate manager's office, to be sorted and dealt with by one of the stewards.
"It was brought by a messenger,"said the gamekeeper, standing stiffly at attention.
The General recognized the handwriting. Taking the letter and putting it in his pocket, he stepped into the cool of the entrance hall and, without uttering a word, handed the gamekeeper both his stick and his hat. He removed a pair of spectacles from his cigar case, went over to the window where light insinuated itself through the slats of the blinds, and began to read.
"Wait,"he said over his shoulder to the gamekeeper, who was about to leave the room to dispose of cane and hat.
He crumpled the letter into his pocket. "Tell Kalman to harness up at six o'clock. The Landau, because there's rain in the air. And he is to wear full-dress livery. You too,"he said with unexpected force, as if suddenly angered. "Everything must shine. The carriage and harness are to be cleaned immediately. Then put on your livery, and seat yourself next to Kalman on the coachbox. Understood?"
"Yes, Excellence,"said the gamekeeper, looking his master directly in the eye. "At six o'clock.""At half past six you will leave,"said the General, and then appeared to be making some calculation, for his lips moved silently. "You will go to the White Eagle. All you are to say is that I have sent you, and the carriage for the Captain is waiting. Repeat."
The gamekeeper repeated the words. Then the General raised his hand, as if he had just thought of something else, and he looked up at the ceiling but didn't say anything and went upstairs to the second floor. The gamekeeper, still frozen to attention, watched him, unblinking, and waited until the thickset, broad-shouldered figure disappeared around the turn of the stone balustrade.
The General went into his room, washed his hands, and stepped over to his high, narrow standing desk; arranged on its surface of unstained green felt were pens, ink, and a perfectly aligned stack of those notebooks covered in black-and-white-checked oilcloth commonly used by schoolchildren for their home- work. In the middle of the desk stood a green-shaded lamp, which the General switched on, as the room was dark. On the other side of the closed blinds, in the scorched, withered garden, summer ignited a last blaze like an arsonist setting the fields on fire in senseless fury before making his escape. The General took out the letter, carefully smoothed the paper, set his glasses on his nose and placed the sheet under the bright light to read the straight short lines of angular handwriting, his arms folded behind his back.
There was a calendar hanging on the wall. Its fist-sized numbers showed August 14. The General looked up at the ceiling and counted: August 14. July 2. He was calculating how much time had elapsed between that long-ago day and today. "Forty-one years,"he said finally, half aloud. Recently he had been talking to himself even when he was alone in the room. "Forty years,"he then said, confused, and blushed like a school- boy who's stumbled in the middle of a lesson, tilted his head back and closed his watering eyes. His neck reddened and bulged over the maize-yellow collar of his jacket. "July 2, 1899, was the day of the hunt,"he murmured, then fell silent. Propping his elbows on the desk like a student at his studies, he went back to staring anxiously at the letter with its brief handwritten message. "Forty-one,"he said again, hoarsely. "And forty-three days. Yes, exactly."
He seemed calmer now, and began to walk up and down. The room had a vaulted ceiling, supported by a central column. It had once been two rooms, a bedroom, and a dressing room.
Many years agohe thought only in decades, anything more exact upset him, as if he might be reminded of things he would rather forgethe had had the wall between the two rooms torn down. Only the column holding up the central vault remained. The castle had been built two hundred years earlier by an army supplier who sold oats to the Austrian cavalry and in course of time was promoted to the nobility. The General had been born here in this room.
In those days the room farthest back, the dark one that looked onto the garden and estate offices, had been his mother's bedroom, while the lighter, airier room had been the dressing room.
For decades now, since he had moved into this wing of the building, and torn down the dividing wall, this large, shadowy chamber had replaced the two rooms. Seventeen paces from the door to the bed. Eighteen paces from the wall on the garden side to the balcony. Both distances counted off exactly.
He lived here as an invalid lives within the space he has learned to inhabit. As if the room had been tailored to his body. Years passed without him setting foot in the other wing of the castle, in which salon after salon opened one into the next, first green, then blue, then red, all hung with gold chandeliers.
The windows in the south wing gave onto the park with its chestnut trees that stood in a semicircle in front of protruding balustrades held up by fat stone angels, and bowed down over the balconies in spring in all their dark-green magnificence, lit with pink flowering candles. When he went out, it was to the cellars or into the forest orevery morning, rain or shine, even in winterto the trout pond. And when he came back, he went through the entrance hall and up to his bedroom, and it was here that he ate all his meals.
"So he's come back,"he said aloud, standing in the middle of the room. "Forty-one years and forty-three days later."
These words seemed suddenly to exhaust him, as if he had only just understood the enormousness of forty-one years and forty-three days. He swayed, then sat down in the leather armchair with its worn back. On the little table within reach of his hand was a little silver bell, which he rang.
"Tell Nini to come up here,"he said to the servant. And then, politely, "If she'd be so kind."
Reading Group Guide
“As masterly and lovely a novel as one could ask for. . . . Embers is perfect.” —The Washington Post Book World
Originally written in 1942 by the well-regarded Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai, Embers was translated into English in 2001 and became an international bestseller. The following introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography are intended to enhance your group’s reading of this exciting new literary discovery in which the classic formula of a love triangle is manipulated into an original and exquisite tale of honor, friendship, betrayal, and declining aristocracy.
1. What makes the bonds of a “friendship that reaches back to childhood” so strong that “death itself cannot undo” it [pp. 141–2]? If friendship is, in fact, “a duty,” as Henrik asserts [p. 110], what is the nature of the “duty” between Henrik and Konrad? Did one or the other fail in this obligation, and if so, how? Was Konrad “faithless” [p. 112]?
2. What was the “debt” that one of them feels toward the other after Henrik meets Konrad’s parents and learns the truth about Konrad’s background [p. 47]? How does this realization change the nature of their friendship? Was this event the turning point in their friendship?
3. Henrik says, “One would need to know why all this happened. And where the boundary lies between two people. The boundary of betrayal. . . . And also, where in all this my guilt lies” [p. 169]. Of what is Henrik guilty? If Henrik’s twice-made assertion that the guilt is “in the intention” [pp. 112, 139–140] is true, which was Konrad’s greatest offense: his intention to kill Henrik, his affair with Krisztina, or his abandonment of their friendship? Or, as Henrik speculates, was both men’s betrayal of Krisztina the greatest offense of all [p. 192]?
4. On more than one occasion, the men allude to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Referring to their past as soldiers, Konrad says, “What we swore to uphold no longer exists” [p. 93], and Henrik later speculates further that “Perhaps this entire way of life which we have known since birth, this house, this dinner, even the words we have used this evening to discuss the questions of our lives, perhaps they all belong to the past” [p. 182]. In what ways is the novel an elegy to the past, to a lost way of life? Can the course of Henrik and Konrad’s friendship be read as a metaphor for the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?
5. Márai writes, “And because of their friendship, each forgave the other’s original sin: wealth on the one hand and poverty on the other” [p. 61]. How do the different circumstances of their births contribute to Henrik and Konrad’s separation? Which is the greater sin in this friendship–wealth or poverty? What kind of society allows for this comparison of wealth and poverty to original sin? Is this a comparison that would hold true in all societies?
6. Konrad’s differences, according to Henrik and his father, made him unsuited to the career of a soldier [pp. 52–4]. The implication is that Henrik, by contrast, was eminently suited to the career of a soldier. But is the portrait of the hardened general consistent with the young Henrik who nearly died in Paris because he “needed love” [p. 29], and who wanted to be poet [p. 30]? And if it was actually Henrik’s personality that was not suited to the military, could it have been Henrik who envied Konrad his differences, rather than Konrad who envied Henrik his birthright?
7. Henrik says: “There are worse things that suffering and death . . . it is worse to lose one’s self-respect. . . . Self-respect is what gives a person his or her intrinsic value” [p. 190]. Does Henrik retain his self-respect by adhering to the noble “male virtues: silence, solitude, the inviolability of one’s word, and women” [p. 69]? What is lost in the preservation of self-respect? Does Henrik have any regrets about the way he has chosen to live his life?
8. What motivated Konrad to introduce Henrik to his parents and their poverty? Was it the same motivation that made Krisztina want to keep a diary—the fear that “life will fill with something that can no longer be shared, a genuine secret, indescribable, unutterable” [p. 160]? Is it this common trait that drives Konrad and Krisztina together?
9. What is the nature of the revenge Krisztina achieves by dying? Is this different from the revenge that Henrik seeks from his meeting with Konrad, and if so, how [p. 182]?
10. What is the truth that Henrik seeks from Konrad [p. 93]? Does Henrik gain the insight for which he’s looking, or did he somehow already have it? Is Konrad’s refusal to answer Henrik’s question on p. 204 tantamount to a confession, or does it reveal something else? By throwing Krisztina’s diary into the fire, is Henrik acknowledging that he already knows the truth or indicating that it is not in the diary at all [p. 205]?
11. In the society of Konrad and Henrik’s youth, “[F]ifty million people found their security in the feeling that their Emperor was in bed every night before midnight and up again before five, sitting by candlelight at his desk in an American rush-bottomed chair, while everyone else who had pledged their loyalty to him was obeying the customs and the laws. Naturally true obedience required a deeper commitment than that prescribed by laws. Obedience had to be rooted in the heart: that was what really counted. People had to be certain that everything was in its place” [p. 56]. How did this society foster Henrik’s personality? Without the influence of such an environment, how might he have behaved after Konrad’s departure?
12. How do the Europeans differ from the natives in Konrad’s account of his life in the tropics [pp. 80–83] Do these stereotypes date the novel? How do they play to modern political sensibilities?
13. What qualities do the Arabs display that Henrik admires [p. 123]? Do Arabs embrace the truth about man’s natural instincts to kill while Westerners simply disguise it [pp. 124–9]? Does Henrik’s character embody an element of Western hypocrisy?
14. Music plays a significant role in the novel, especially in the power it holds over Henrik’s mother, Konrad, and Krisztina [p. 178]. Why its influence inherently dangerous [p. 51]? Is there a similarity between the symbolism and meaning of the hunt for Henrik and his father and the power of music over the others [p. 122]?
15. How does Henrik’s parents’ marriage influence his own marriage? What might the King have “said to the young wife who had come from a foreign country and wept as she danced” [p. 24]?
16. What happens to Henrik’s mother when she moves from the city to the castle deep in the forest [pp. 20–22]? How is Henrik affected as he moves from his castle in the forest to the city [p. 27]? How do these changes in landscape alter their behavior and highlight their different temperaments? Does Konrad have a similar experience when he moves to the tropics [pp. 80–83]?
17. As Nini and Henrik gaze at the dining room, “All of a sudden the objects seemed to take on meaning, as if to prove that everything in the world acquires significance only in relation to human activity and human destiny” [p. 71]. How does the appearance of the room recall Henrik’s and Krisztina’s view of Konrad’s room forty-one years earlier [p. 166]? What can objects reveal about customs and traditions? About emotions and relationships? What does Henrik’s replacement of Krisztina’s picture in the castle’s portrait gallery signify?
18. One might read Embers as a study of the powers and the limitations of words: the spoken word, as seen in the conversation between Konrad and Henrik, and the written word, as represented by the diary of Krisztina. At one point, Henrik muses: “Sometimes it seems to me that it is precisely the words one utters, or stifles, or writes, that are the issue, if not the only issue” [p. 117]. And later he says:
What can one ask people with words? And what is the value of an answer given in words instead of in the coin of one’s entire life? . . . Not much. . . . There are very few people whose words correspond exactly to the reality of their lives. It may be the rarest thing there is. . . . Nevertheless, one can get closer to reality and the facts by using words, questions and answers” [pp. 163–4].
Do words have inherent power as Henrik proposes? What are the limits of language? How does the power of the written word compare to the power of the spoken word? Significantly, it is not with words that the book ends, but with the kiss between Henrik and Nini, which is “an answer, a clumsy but tender answer to a question that eludes the power of language” [p. 213]. Does this kiss provide the answer to Henrik’s second question?
19. A third-person narrator tells the history of Henrik’s family and his youthful friendship with Konrad, but then the events during and after their last dinner together with Krisztina are recounted from only Henrik’s perspective. How is the reader’s view of the story affected by hearing only his voice for this part of the story and not Konrad’s? How might Konrad have told the story, and how might his point of view have changed the whole tone and focus of the novel?