Introduction     About the novel    Conclusion

Sándor Márai was born in 1900 in the town of Kassa in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire. He rose to literary fame in the 1930s. World War II interrupted his career as he was persecuted for his anti-fascist stand. Emigrating from his country to the United States, Márai commited suicide in San Diego in 1989.
He and his wife lost a young son during World War II, but they adopted a young boy who was staying in the same house with them in the village to which they fled from Budapest during WWII (this is described in the Memoir of Hungary). After they came to the US, the son settled in San Diego and eventually Márai and his wife did, too. In 1987, Márai's wife died. In 1989, his adopted son, whom he loved very much, died very suddenly of pancreatic cancer. Two months later, Márai went out and bought a gun, arranged all his affairs very carefully, called the police to come to his house to find him (so that he wouldn't be found by one of his three granddaughters), and committed suicide. Six months later, Hungary was a free country, and his work could be published there again after 40 years!
Novelist, short story and memoir writer, poet, journalist and playwright. A true cosmopolitan, he was a protector of civil values; he died in exile, and his later writings could only be published in Hungary after the downfall of Communism. His work can be related to that of Thomas Mann and Gyula Krúdy. "This is the Hungarian middle-class whose way of life I was born into, observed, came to know and scrutinised in all its features to the very roots, and now I see the whole disintegrating. Perhaps this is my life's, my writing's sole duty: to delineate the course of this disintegration." (Sándor Márai)

Embers by Sándor Márai was originally published in Budapest 1942 and is the first of the Hungarian writer's books to be translated into English. An extraordinary novel about a triangular relationship, about love, friendship, and fidelity about betrayal, pride, and true nobility. /Carol Brown Janeway is the editor/translator of Embers. She said that her publisher, Knopf, has purchased the rights to 23 of Marai's novels and will be translating them (from the Hungarian!) and bringing them out in the next few years./
A basic question which every human being asks himself at some point in his relationships is, “Is this person truly my friend - or is he my enemy? ” This question certainly concerned Sándor Márai, and it circles like a great, black cloud through the pages of his amazing novel, Embers. Perhaps even more disturbing is the basis for this question: the uncertainty as to whether anyone really loves us.
As one of the characters says: “Sometimes I almost believe (friendship) is the most powerful bond in life and consequently the rarest ... Between a man and a woman a delicate web of terms and conditions is always negotiated. Between men, on the other hand, the deep sense of friendship rests on selflessness.
A third-person narrator tells the history of Henrik's family and his youthful friendship with Konrád, but then the events during and after their last dinner together with Krisztina are recounted from only Henrik's perspective.
The character who does most of the talking about friendship and other matters of the heart is the General (Henrik), a wealthy aristocrat and soldier and Konrad, who is musically and artistically inclined and therefore different from his friend.
We age slowly. First, our pleasure in life and other people declines, everything gradually becomes so real, we understand the significance of everything, everything repeats itself in a kind of troubling boredom. It's the function of age. We know a glass is only a glass. A man, poor creature, is only a mortal, no matter what he does. Then our bodies age: not all at once. First, it is the eyes, or the legs, or the heart. We age by installments. And then suddenly our spirits begin to age: the body may have grown old, but our souls still yearn and remember and search and celebrate and long for joy. And when the longing for joy disappears, all that are left are memories or vanity, and then, finally, we are truly old. One day we wake up and rub our eyes and do not know why we have woken. We know all too well what the day offers: spring or winter, the surface of life, the weather, the daily routine. Nothing surprising can ever happen again: not even the unexpected, the unusual, the dreadful can surprise us, because we know all the probabilities, we anticipate everything, there's nothing we want anymore, either good or bad. That is old age...
The General out of a different time, deeply hurt, long isolated, is a fairly well drawn figure. Few others are of much significance in the text: his nurse, now over ninety, Konrád, the General's father, ... and Krisztina. It is the spirit of the age -- of the lost age, of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire -- that is the strongest presence in the book.
As the novel opens, two old friends prepare for an unexpected reunion forty-one years after last having seen each other. As the preparations go forward for their meal, we learn of their differences and are given ideas as to why they have not seen each other in such a long time. The General, with his aristocratic titles and significant wealth, and his Guest were friends at school and as close as brothers. They met as cadets at the military academy in Vienna and were the closest friends for a long time, before a woman came between them. Forty-one years passed on, the General lives in a castle in the Carpathian mountains, with only in his old nurse’s company, and Konrád is coming to see him for the first time. And so the General looks back over his life and then, in a meeting that resolves everything and nothing, presents in a monologue, through which we discover what really happened all those years ago.
But something terrible has happened to separate them something that clearly involves the general's wife, Krisztina and as the general talks and talks to his ever more reluctant guest, the secret is delicately revealed. Of course, it does involve a daring love between Konrád and Krisztina, but that is not really what is at stake, as Márai imaginatively reveals. Questions of honor, truth, and friendship are entertained here, and though the novel inevitably has an old-fashioned feel, the questions it raises are timeless. Highly recommended.

It is a sad book. Not the sadness of current affairs, nor that of the death of a character in a novel. But the profound sadness of a raw nerve being hit, repeatedly, with vicious exactitude but at the same time - and this is what makes Márai's prose magical - with a depective calm. Try the scene where one of the protagonists disposes, calmly and coldly, of something both protagonists have been holding on to and searching for, respectively, for 41 years... if you read that and remain unmoved, unchilled, then Medusa might have paid you a visit earlier...”
Embers is simply a good story, it would be worth reading just as any other well-written book is worth reading at any time. This is ,without a doubt, a book of the 20th century, but not because of its subject matter. Let us hope that when Hollywood discovers this novel, if it has not done already, someone like Orson Welles would create a brilliant film.