The castle was a closed world, like a great granite mausoleum full of the moldering bones of generations of men and women from earlier times, in their shrouds of slowly disintegrating gray silk or black cloth. It enclosed silence itself as if it were a prisoner persecuted for his beliefs, wasting away numbly, unshaven and in rags on a pile of musty rotting straw in a dungeon. It also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats, and beetles lurk in the mildewed cellars of old houses. 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 had loosened itself on people in all its fury exudes such intangible presences.
In the months since I read it, I've developed a curious relationship with Sándor Márai's (1900-89) Embers (1942, Hungarian; English translation by Carol Brown Janeway, 2001). There were elements of it that I loved; but the virtuoso descriptive passages and the dark fairytale tone only served to make my eventual disenchantment with the novel more biting. Rarely have I been so caught up in a book one minute, and so itching to throw it across the room the next. Even now, as I settle down to write what will be a largely negative review, I can feel the soaring intensity of the early sections tugging at my memory. While selecting excerpts to use here, I found myself wondering, at first, why I'd disliked the book so much; then I reached the halfway point and Oh. I see.
My copy carries a quotation from The Times on the front cover; Embers is described as "A spellbinding [story] driven by intense passion." Passion, I ask now, or just breathtakingly arrogant solipsism? It may already be clear which option I incline towards.
But let's begin with the good stuff, as the book does: the protagonist's family history is a lovely exercise in brooding fabulism. When his father (called only "the Officer of the Guards") and mother ("the Count's daughter") meet for the first time at an unnamed embassy's ball, his first reported words to her are, "'In our country feelings are more intense and more decisive'", and their courtship begins later in the same dance, with the broad strokes of the mythic:
The young French girl said, "Your country - where is it?" and smiled again with a faraway look. The Officer of the Guards told her the name of his homeland. It was the first intimate word to pass between them.
The effects of shifting political boundaries in Eastern Europe are difficult to escape in a novel of this period. Identity is a complex matter, born of a mingling of landscape, personal experience, and cultural touchstones, it can be irreparably damaged, but not erased, by the transformation of one land into another, of empires into nation-states. In the novel's postwar present, one character notes that, "My homeland [...] no longer exists. My homeland was Poland, Vienna, this house, the barracks in the city, Galicia, and Chopin. What's left?" It makes for a potentially potent coupling with the sense of nationalism that both contributed to, and was fostered by, the First World War, although in practice this is a motif that remain implicit in the book, rather than being directly explored.
In the early parts of the novel, however, all this lies some way in the future. In the meantime, the tale of Henrik's parents is retold with the dreamy distance of something heard third-hand, which it may well have been; Henrik comes from the sort of social milieu in which parents' contact with their offspring is circumscribed by the need to be seen paying others to do the hard work. He was thus raised largely by a nurse, Nini, whose face, we're told, "was rose-pink and crumpled"; her role as the family's repository of memory and story is signalled through its comparison to "centuries-old silks that hold woven in their threads the assembled skills and dreams of an entire family".
The lack of love the young Henrik receives from his parents - themselves soon estranged from each other by the differences in their respective ways of seeing the world, and the weight of history contained in the isolated family castle, as described in the header quote above - is sensed by strangers as an "unbearable smell that surrounded him on all sides", and we are told that, when he falls ill, it is because he has "chosen death". This magical realist air follows him to school - boarding, of course, a place "like an infernal machine whose silence presages the explosion to come" - where he meets Konrad, his greatest friend and (because it's that sort of story) his greatest betrayer.
It is in this relationship that the first glimmers of Henrik's capacity for wilful self-deception emerge, and from this point that the charming, brooding, folkloric tale of the novel's first fifty pages or so steadily loses ground to his self-obsession. Henrik and Konrad become each other's refuge ("Childhood was no longer a cramped place, it no longer intimidated them, because they were no longer alone"); they become "like twins in their mother's womb", sharing a friendship "deep and wordless, as are all the emotions that will last a lifetime". So thorough is the romanticisation of their bond, indeed, that Márai is moved to offer us this little gem:
And yet, beyond their roles and their lives in society, beyond the women, something else, something more powerful made itself felt. A feeling known only to men. A feeling called friendship.
Reader, it broke me. Even making allowances for the book's age, and for the fact that it the narrative is heavily coloured by Henrik's view of the world - although he does not begin to narrate directly until the second half - this is difficult to excuse, or move past. There are, after all, no female friendships to be seen that might give the lie to the character's (or the author's) smug sense of superiority, and the whole second half of the book is essentially a treatise on how it's better to emotionally abuse people than to live life without a passionate male friendship. My enjoyment of the novel, I'm sorry to say, never really recovered from these three sentences.
Márai does undermine the ideal of Henrik and Konrad's friendship. Reading between the lines - and, later, from a few remarks by Konrad - we can see that they, and their circumstances, were more different than Henrik can acknowledge, either at the time or in his reflections upon this period, decades later. The boys spend every school holiday together, but they do so at Henrik's family castle; later in life, Konrad confronts Henrik - and himself - with the stark truth of the sacrifices his family made to afford his education:
"Twenty-two years and never a journey, never a new piece of clothing, never a summer outing, because I must be made into the masterpiece that they in their weakness failed to achieve in their own lives."
But whereas the story of Henrik's parents benefitted from the heartbreaking economy of its rendition as a fairytale, Márai's determination to cast the younger generation's relationship in similarly mythic terms has the opposite effect. When Henrik, meeting Konrad again for the first time in forty years, tells him "Ours was a friendship out of the ancient sagas", the effect is one of double-vision: the author's pursuit of his theme of passion, of emotions writ large across a canvas that is early twentieth-century Europe in all its sufferings, is exposed and rendered ridiculous by the depths of Henrik's deluded sense of importance.
There are a couple of wonderful passages about the ways in which the differences between the two men are expressed through their taste in - and approach to - music. Henrik says that he "'hate[s] this incomprehensible, melodious language which select people can understand and use to say uninhibited, irregular things that are also probably indecent and immoral'"; a clumsy phrasing (perhaps intentionally), but a sentiment hardly surprising when we see how it gives Konrad access to the emotions of the women in Henrik's life. Here he is playing piano with Henrik's mother:
The courteous listeners realized that music is dangerous. But the duo at the piano had lost all thought of danger. The Polonaise-Fantaisie was no more than a pretext to loose upon the world those forces that shake and explode the structures of order which man has devised to conceal what lies beneath. They sat straight-backed at the piano, leaning away from the keys a little and yet bound to them, as if music itself were driving an invisible team of fiery mythical horses riding the storm that circled the world, and they were bracing their bodies to maintain a firm grip on the reins in this explosive headlong gallop of unshackled energies. And then, with a single chord, they ended.
Yet Márai cannot resist sweeping up the implications of Henrik's immense privilege and the social gulf between him and Konrad into such grandiose, approving statements as "because of their friendship, each forgave the other's original sin: wealth on the one hand and poverty on the other".
It's not helped by the fact that the context in which Henrik and Konrad meet again, and the setting for the the latter half of the novel, is a dinner at the castle to which Henrik invites only Konrad. To be specific, he invites Konrad so that he may spend well over a hundred pages lecturing Konrad about the way their relationship broke down - over a woman, predictably, Henrik's late wife Krisztina, who had an affair with Konrad - and all the things he (Henrik) has learned from that experience during the intervening forty years. After the marvellous flights of prose of the first half, we're brought back to earth with a bump by Henrik's seemingly endless capacity for bloviating. Konrad barely gets a word in edgeways; I laughed aloud when, near the end, Konrad uses a rare pause in Henrik's verbosity to say "'we have talked about everything that needed to be talked about'", and take his leave.
But then, to Henrik, it's all about him. Henrik frames Krisztina and Konrad's affair as something aimed at him, a "'pitiful rebellion'" on her part and a betrayal on his; the way that she subsequently becomes collateral damage in the breakdown of their ancient-saga friendship barely registers with Henrik, because it is clear that he doesn't really see her as a person. His reaction on finding her diary, "with its alarming evidence of her inner self" is only confusion, although he does feel moved to inform Konrad that
"Krisztina, too, had character, in a different sense of the word from the one we men use. In those years, you and I were not the only ones to whom things happened; they happened to her, too."
Stunning insight, there, Henrik, thanks. Nor does it seem, at the last, as if Márai disagrees with him. Far from challenging Henrik's self-absorbed annexation of Krisztina's emotional life and identity to his own journey of self-discovery, Konrad - the only character with the capacity to gainsay him within the narrative, given their shared history - actually puts his seal of approval on it:
"Do you also believe that what gives our lives their 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? That is the question. Or perhaps, is it indeed about desiring a particular person, a single, mysterious other, once and for always, no matter whether that person is good or bad, and the intensity of our feelings bears no relation to that individual’s qualities or behavior?" [...]
"Why do you ask me?" says the guest quietly, "when you know the answer is yes."
So it's all okay, because at least they were passionate in their utter disregard for the feelings or well-being of anyone but themselves! I feel so much better for knowing that.
There, I'm angry with it all over again. The only way I can reconcile myself to this, and still enjoy the beautiful prose of the bits where Henrik isn't holding forth, is to read Konrad's final statement as sarcasm: the answer is yes, for you, Henrik, because you're completely insufferable. But by the end of the novel I had no confidence that this was the intent; nor, given Konrad's own less lengthy but thematically similar comments about his life during the missing forty years, in the oh so passionate "tropics", do I really believe that he is capable of being remotely irreverent or self-aware about passion, either.