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Sándor Márai’s Hungarian Classic: Embers

3,469 words

He came from a world where soft music lilted through dining rooms and ballrooms and salons . . . it was played to make life sweeter and more festive, to make women’s eyes flash and men’s vanity throw sparks . . . [his] music on the other hand didn’t offer forgetfulness; it aroused people to the feelings of passion and guilt and demanded that [they] be truer to themselves . . . such music is upsetting . . . [1] [1]

I’m terrible at making time for fiction anymore. Years of training and habit have made me solely a consumer of nonfiction. But I found myself gravitating, as if by spell, to a small novel on the shelf that I hadn’t read in ages (bookshelves seem to have that power). I remembered that its impression on me lingered for days — not in the manner with which especially powerful books sear their readers — but one that inspired reflection and questions. What exactly had I just read? The conflict between the two protagonists was resolved, but it didn’t matter. The characters of both men were laid bare, but they remained mysterious. The “conversation” between them, which comprised more than half the plot, was that of a one-sided diatribe rather than a shared dialogue. The novel’s backdrop was the once-sprawling central European empire of the Hapsburgs, but the action took place almost entirely within a single room. I decided to read it again and was once more drawn into the world of Sándor Márai’s Embers (1942).

A word on the author of this book: Sándor Márai is one of the more well-known Hungarian writers in the English-speaking world. Born in 1900 to Saxon-Magyar parents in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire, he managed to weather both World Wars and only faced real problems when the Soviets took control of Budapest. Under pressure, he left his native land in 1948, moving to Italy and then settling permanently in America — San Diego, to be precise — where he dedicated himself to criticizing communism in Eastern Europe. Following his wife’s death, loneliness and a looming diagnosis of cancer plunged him into a deep depression. He shot himself in 1989, months before Hungary’s liberation. His writing explored the psychological tensions between individuals, usually as a metaphorical commentary on the political and social conflicts in an empire that fell when he was just a teenager, but one with which he never fell out of (a complicated) love. His books were extended eulogies to a land ancient, wintry, and covered in wolf-filled forests. It’s hard not to think that his settling in southern California eventually wore down and exhausted his poet’s soul with too much sun and cheeriness.

While doing a bit of background research on Márai, I stumbled across an article whose author, one Sam Munson, affected puzzlement that Márai should have enjoyed more celebrity in Anglophone countries than someone like “Imre Kertész, a Holocaust survivor.” Munson came to the conclusion that it was “not Márai’s merits but his flaws that endeared him to an American readership.” The literary world could chalk up Márai’s relative success to his characters’ “didacticism, [or] . . . speaking at a belief-defying level of knowledge about their own psychologies, and narrators explaining in minute, schoolteacherly detail precisely what is happening on the page.” This indulged the American rube in his preference for “the explicit and static over the ambiguous . . . or psychological[ly] myster[ious].” Whereas someone like Kertész, who made a career out of writing about his time at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, was too fine a vintage for unsophisticated palettes. [2] [2]


Had Munson done the reading? Furthermore, has anyone ever written an understated or “implicit” Holocaust book? The Márai I read was, yes, a writer interested in human psychology and emotion, but one who often used subtlety, characters’ silences and misdirections, and their lack of self-knowledge to express those things. Embers was a case in point. I remained mystified until I looked at the article’s citation: Commentary magazine. Ah. I’ll continue with what will hopefully be a more accurate interpretation of Márai’s fascinating book.

The sad-eyed Hungarian: Sándor Márai.

Since a basic knowledge of Central Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is helpful in understanding the world of Embers, first a history lesson:

Modern Central Europe began to emerge after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years War. The German principalities remained divided roughly between those within the sphere of (Protestant) Prussia’s influence and those allied with the (Catholic) Austrian Hapsburgs — the heirs of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1871, Otto von Bismarck united much of modern Germany under a Prussian-dominated German Empire, taking back Alsace-Lorrain from the French and ending Austrian pretensions of uniting the German states under its own banner. Despite this geopolitical rivalry, Germany endeavored to maintain cordial relations with the Hapsburgs, for fears of Russian expansionism to the east were chronic during the late nineteenth century, and allies were in short supply.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire, meanwhile, was by 1914 the great enemy of nationalism in central Europe. It was the “ramshackle realm” loosely held together by Emperor Francis (or Franz) Joseph, who had ruled since 1848. [3] [3] From day one, the young Emperor had had to contend with multiple uprisings: from the Bohemians, Italians, Hungarians, Germans, as well as Viennese students who manned the barricades, armed with revolutionary pretensions and little else. These academics nevertheless galvanized the mob and forced Prince Klemens von Metternich to flee the city. [4] [4] The Austrian Minister of War, who did not manage to escape, was lynched in the street. The eighteen-year-old Hapsburg ruler had inherited something of a dumpster fire (1848 was a year of continent-wide rebellions against monarchy). And the next half-century would not get any easier. Assassinations, suicides, and terrorist attempts would plague the ruling family. For a time, assuming the role of an Austrian royal might have been the most dangerous job in Europe. [5] [5] Why there has not been a terrible SHOWTIME series made in the style of The Tudors or Borgias and dedicated to this bloody central European soap opera is beyond me. Or have I just missed it?

The Hungarians were (somewhat) pacified with the “Dual Monarchy” agreement of 1867, which granted Hungary autonomy when it came to most of its internal affairs. Hungarians were also not required to address Francis Joseph as “Emperor,” but they used the less grandiose title of “King.” Special treatment for the Empire’s territories ended there and left everyone else resentful. The Balkan possessions in particular chafed under Austrian rule. The Empire’s miscalculations in the early twentieth century were legendary, and it did not survive the First World War (Francis Joseph never abdicated, but he died in 1916 and was thus spared from having to watch his empire’s ultimate fate). Its demise was also a lesson about the instabilities that have forever plagued diverse and multiethnic societies. Austria-Hungary was that golden-gilt apple that hid a pack of worms burrowing through its core.

With the passing of years and the rise of unlovely regimes that replaced it, a nostalgia for the prettily tattered old Empire emerged, even among proud Hungarians like Márai. The “tyrant” Francis Joseph suddenly seemed like a benevolent philosopher-king in the face of Joseph Stalin and his cutthroat puppet-people. Even if the Dual Monarchy was flawed and prone to bizarre disasters, something beautiful was lost when that most venerated of European dynasties fell before the guns of Galicia. Márai mourned what he considered the paired loss of the Magyar aristocracy and the Hungarian middle class. It was this sort of wistfulness for a lost age that colored his novels and memoirs and made his politics somewhat hard to place. He was not a fellow traveler of people like Julius Evola or Ezra Pound. Neither was he a clear liberal, nor a traditionalist. Perhaps the truth is simply that he preferred the excesses of the Austro-Hungarians to the excesses of the Soviet Bolsheviks. A sensible man.

Embers (whose Hungarian title most closely translates to “Candles Burning Down to the Wick”) is perhaps his best work. It is a slim volume, barely longer than the average novella, but it is chewy and should be read as if savoring a glass of good wine and without outside distractions.

You can buy Greg Johnson’s Graduate School with Heidegger here [6]

Its opening scene began somewhere in the Hungarian wilds during the early forties, a quarter-century after the Empire’s collapse. Although it is mentioned several times in passing, little sense that an uglier war was then rending the continent apart once again imposed its presence on the story or its characters. These were people and places in thrall to the past, Márai seemed to say.

The first character introduced to the reader was “the General,” or “Henrik,” an elderly man, “brusque” and used to an unchanging routine on his Carpathian estate — a morning spent in the wine cellars or inspecting his kennels. Then, an afternoon consultation with “Nini,” the ninety-year-old housekeeper who had once suckled the infant General at her breast and had become over her many decades of loyal service the personified spirit of the old house. Though neither relatives nor lovers, Henrik and Nini shared a “consanguinity both closer and more powerful than that of twins in a mother’s womb.” [6] [7] It was the first example in Embers of Márai’s preoccupation with the profound and unknowable nature of human relationships.

This day, however, was different. The General received a shock. A letter had arrived bearing handwriting instantly recognizable, even to his aged eyes. He summoned Nini and requested that the old wing of the house — the grander one, with a great hall and splendid dining room long out of use — be prepared and polished that evening for a guest the General had neither seen nor spoken to in over forty years. He must wear his uniform. The buttons must gleam on the jacket. The place and he, himself, must look like they had in 1900, candles all lit and sparkling — they must look like they had before everything happened.

Henrik gazed up at his late mother’s portrait as Nini left to make the arrangements. The Countess’s returning look was one of “sad and somnolent disdain . . . the look with which women of an earlier era had mounted the scaffold, scorning both those for whom they were giving their lives and those who were taking their lives from them.” She’d died when the General was a young man. In life, she was lovely, but foreign — a Frenchwoman who’d fallen for a dashing Hungarian Count, a captain of the guards, at a dance held by the French Emperor. A whirlwind romance led to an engagement, and before she left with her new husband, the smiling French Emperor warned her, Mademoiselle, “‘Beware. In the forest where he’s taking you, there are bears. He’s a bear, too.’ . . . ‘Majesty,’ she replied, ‘I shall tame him with music, as Orpheus tamed the wild beast.’” Indeed, music in Embers would become a symbol of the passion that both tethered together and destroyed the bonds of lovers and one’s closest friends. [7] [8]

The Hungarian captain of the guards whisked the Frenchwoman away to his castle, and with each mile further from France and “civilization” and into the dark woods of central Europe, her sense of gloom and regret deepened. Henrik’s mother never recovered from her melancholy.

Sighing, the General remembered hazily how, at one time, his parents entertained the nobility of Hungary in their forested estate in order to assuage the Countess’s sense of isolation. Francis Joseph, King of Hungary himself, danced the waltz with her at one of those glittering parties. She’d cried silent tears during the interlude, and the King kissed her fingers and spoke to her in gentle tones. She told no one what was said. But this was an age when one simply endured the consequences of one’s choices. If wives turned out to be harpies, husbands found activities that kept them out of the house as much as possible, or they built another wing on the manse for escape. If husbands became cruel or neglectful, wives turned to God or their children for solace. If one’s spouse lived in the backwoods of Hungary, cut off from society, one suffered through it and cried in the arms of a king — then never spoke of the moment of weakness again. How like Krisztina — his own late wife, and who also had been dead for decades –his mother was, thought the General, his expression darkening.

But now, this letter. His childhood confidant, Konrad, had announced himself from a nearby inn, wanting an audience. Wanting dinner with him. No thought of refusal entered Henrik’s mind, for he had been preparing nearly half a century for this reunion. Henrik, Konrad, Krisztina, and his mother all belonged to another age, another empire. At one time Konrad and the General had been inseparable. They’d “shared a friendship . . . deep and wordless,” the kind that “would impose a lifetime of obligations” on them both, the need to “remove another human being from the world, body and soul, and make him uniquely theirs.” They’d met at the Viennese military academy, a place attended by “young Slavs whose blood mingled with all the human particularities of the Empire, [and] . . . blue-eyed ten-year-old weary aristocrats who stared into the distance as if their ancestors had done all of their seeing for them, and there was a Tyrolean duke who shot himself at the age of twelve because he was in love with his cousin.” At this academy, with its bluebloods, ambitious sons, and eccentrics they became so close that nothing, it seemed, would break their attachment. [8] [9]

Readers of Márai may be reminded here of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, though I did not detect a homosexual relationship existing between Henrik and Konrad that some have read into Charles and Sebastien’s relationship in Brideshead Revisted (1945); rather, it was a certain kind of fierce friendship that has sometimes developed between adolescent boys, particularly in the nineteenth century when such homo-social relationships were not burdened by Freudianism.

Of course, divisions crept between the young men as they grew older — Konrad was a self-conscious son of poor parents, whose lower-tier titles allowed him entry into society, but whose existence constantly reminded him that he was an outsider in Henrik’s world. Every tip and charge he spent while at school required that his parents go without meat for a week, his mother to fret about a few extra pennies for bread that the baker would demand. The burden, Konrad confessed, sometimes made him “wish they [were] dead.” Whereas Konrad read books about “social histories and social progress, [Henrik] only read books about horses and great journeys.” Konrad talked of ideas, “while Henrik talked [of] life.” Because of the great love they had for one another, “each forgave the other’s original sin: wealth on the one hand and poverty on the other.” [9] [10]

When Konrad spent holidays with Henrik at his family’s estate, he seemed out of place in the world of men and warriors. He would play the piano alongside the Countess while Henrik and his father sat at polite attention, “with an attitude of ‘Life is made up of duties. Music is one of them. Ladies’ wishes are to be obeyed.’” But on one singular occasion, their playing was different. Their fingers danced across the keys to Chopin, and “a metamorphosis [took] place” in the two of them. It was “as if the music was levitating the furniture, as if some mighty force were blowing against the heavy silk curtains, as if every ossified, decayed particle buried deep in the human heart were quickening into life . . . the courteous listeners realized that music is dangerous.” Henrik’s father turned to his son and said, “Konrad will never make a true soldier.” [10] [11]

Still, the General ignored the warnings, the harbingers of the gulf between them, the dangerous passions inside Konrad, revealing individualist desires that ruled his nature, rather than ancient duty or honor. Henrik married and inherited his father’s estate, just as he’d been expected to do. Konrad all but moved in with the newlyweds. It seemed sublime.

An officer and a nobleman in the Austro-Hungarian army, ca. 1900.

Then, there was the day of The Stag Hunt, and everything changed. Konrad sold all his possessions and his apartment, resigned his commission, left for parts unknown, and never spoke to the General again. But now, at last, Henrik’s erstwhile companion was coming to dinner. For a night, Austria-Hungary would live again.

I will not spoil the plot, but I’ll say only that the revelation about the “great betrayal” was jarring, even though I saw it coming. The rest of the book took place in the grand dining hall — a claustrophobic atmosphere of dying light and heated glares. As the candles burned down to their embers, the General and Konrad engaged in a battle of wills, consciences, and classes that masqueraded as a shared meal between old friends. Would the men throw down their forks and take up their sabers once again and have it out in a duel as the howling wolves goaded them on? Would bloody vengeance crown the victor?

It was clear that the overbearing General symbolized the Empire and its aristocratic order, its “festive balls”; while Konrad was a representative of the class whose envy and resentment — and love — destroyed it. Konrad’s quiet intensity during the General’s denunciation was both an acceptance and defiance of the blame leveled against him. All around, the ghosts of those who were long dead and absent haunted the Hungarian night.

As far as I know, the Vintage publication is the only English translation of Embers on the market, and I found its prose musical and clear. It’s a novel that appeals to an acquired taste, I would say. But those who enjoy psychological studies, old-world glamor, and stories of the passions that bind and come between men will find Embers an invitation to multiple readings. Romantics will fall in love with Márai’s descriptions of Vienna at twilight. Is there anything more beautiful than the doomed? Instead of streaming Netflix this weekend, read this underrated Hungarian classic that will nourish your Western soul. Embers is, at heart, a lyrical meditation on youth and old age, on the struggle between the Aristocrat and the Intellectual — the two personas who vied for control of Europe’s destiny on the eve of the Belle Epoch.

As the General dressed for dinner, he went to his desk and “unlocked a secret compartment.” He removed a “Belgian revolver . . . [and] held it in his hand a long time. Then he checked the weapon with expert attention . . . all six [chambers] had bullets in them . . .” He stepped from the mirror to the window, and his “eyes picked up the movement of a steadily advancing carriage . . . Then he closed one eye as a hunter does when taking aim.” [11] [12] Tonight, one way or another, he would have his answers.

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[1] [15] Page 37.

[2] [16] Sam Munson, “From Hungary: The Curious Case of Sándor Márai,” Commentary, vol. 128, no. 4 (November 2009) pp. 66-69, 69. I have to think that the editors of Commentary gave an “explicit” or “implicit” directive to Munson that resulted in his unfair claims about Márai’s work. There are Holocaust writers a-plenty, but I’ve come across only one of Embers.

[3] [17] Arthur J. May, The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1867-1914 (New York: Norton, 1968), v.

[4] [18] Historians consider the Austrian Prince Metternich to be the greatest statesman of the nineteenth century. He was a conservative in the traditional sense — one opposed to the liberalism, republicanism, and nationalism that swept Europe during the Napoleonic era. Following Napoleon’s defeat, he was instrumental in forming the “Congress of Vienna” (1814-1815), which reaffirmed European monarchies and created the “balance of power” model that directed the continent’s affairs and kept its states relatively peaceful for close to one hundred years. His only rival for the title of “greatest nineteenth-century statesman,” in fact, was Bismarck.

[5] [19] Emperor Francis Joseph endured the loss of many close relations throughout his reign. His only son, Prince Rudolf, killed himself in a hotel room in 1889, fulfilling a suicide pact that he had made with his mistress; the Emperor’s wife, the legendarily beautiful Empress Elisabeth, was assassinated in 1898 by an anarchist while touring France; in 1867 Republican forces executed his brother, Emperor Maximilian of Mexico (the Republicans were aided by the US, whose officials regarded the Hapsburg takeover of Mexico to be in violation of the Monroe Doctrine); and finally, a Pan-Slavic nationalist murdered his nephew, the heir-apparent Archduke Francis Ferdinand, along with the Archduke’s wife Sophie, in 1914 as the couple drove through the streets of Sarajevo.

[6] [20] Márai, 9.

[7] [21] Márai, 15, 16.

[8] [22] Márai, 25.

[9] [23] Márai, 42.

[10] [24] Márai, 34-35.

[11] [25] Márai, 45.