The late Hungarian Sandor Marai's novel “Embers” takes place in Hungary in 1940, in a secluded castle. There lives the very old general Henrik, with his even older nanny, who has cared for him most of his life. The general's wife died a generation ago. It is a big night. Coming to dine that evening is Konrad, once the general's closest friend. The general and Konrad have not seen each other in 42 years, nor communicated.
It will be a tense dinner and evening. Prior to Konrad's arrival, the aged nanny places her hand on the general and gently tells him not to get too excited. When Konrad arrives, the pair take the same places they had the last time they met. After dinner, the host begins a discourse, with the guest mostly listening. Traced through the rest of the novel is a deconstruction of a dead friendship. Two lives, friendship, pride, guilt, anger, loathing, deceit, adultery, regret, hunting and thoughts of murder and betrayal are recalled during the long evening spent together by the pair.
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“Embers” is a marvelous, lucid, engrossing novel that deals with male friendships and emotions from a male perspective. Two men with great potential are explored. One betrays the other and runs away without the courage to explain why. As a result the other shields his love from who needs it most, and lives an empty life. The dialogue between the old friends is masterfully crafted. Marai's style compares with Thomas Mann in that this is a European novel that builds slowly with much patience. The reader who delves into Embers one evening may encounter dawn before he turns from the pages.
Marai was an acclaimed Hungarian novelist 70 years ago but his works were mostly destroyed and he was forced into exile when communists grabbed power in Hungary. He emigrated to America and died in San Diego in 1989. Shortly afterwards, his novels were returned to circulation and his stature as one of the best European novelists of the first half of the 20th century was restored.
I once read a review of “Embers” that said it was impossible to put down, that reading it on a train would cause the reader to pass at least 10 stops beyond where he or she was to get off. There’s truth there. “Embers” is so much better than what is conventionally called great writing. It’s a novel that demands a dawn finish for those who start it in the afternoon or early evening.