My literary funk is nearly out of the woods and that is in thanks to Embers, by Sándor Márai. I say nearly, because there were bits and pieces of the story that I found to be too drawn out or long-winded. It is possible that I’ve turned into a terrible cynic and my unlucky reading experiences as of late have hardened me. However, I have a feeling that the perfect story to pull me out of the dredges is waiting out there, and Embers was just a stepping stone in the right direction.
I will say, though, that Embers is a spell-binding and beautifully written story. It is the first book since I gave up the “classics” in college that felt like it was written in another time. That could be in large part because it was written in 1942. Why did it take me so long to stumble across? It wasn’t translated into English until 2000. That’s right, Embers was originally written in Hungarian, the native language and birthplace of our author. To be a bit more specific, Sándor Márai was born in Austria-Hungary, which is now Slovakia. He traveled and lived in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Paris and initially he planned on doing his writings in German. He decided to stick with the language of his mother country, but lucky for us readers, these travels obviously influenced parts of the story.
Unfortunately, I cannot divulge too much in reference to the novel. Through my reading experience, Embers became a uniquely private endeavor. I feel as though someone else would have a completely different experience than I. The essence of the story remains in its secrets, and the unveiling of these secrets pace themselves throughout the story, keeping the reader intrigued and curious. At any point another reader could come to a conclusion lost to myself until the final pages of the story. To share too much here would be to completely ruin the pacing and curiosity of the story for another.
That said, I will say the romantic style of writing had me at hello. Mainly set in a mansion in the forest at the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, Márai does a splendid job of transporting the reader to the darkness of the forgotten castle. We immediately learn that our recluse main character is to have a dinner guest for the first time in 41 years, and this dinner guest is the same one who last dined with our main character those 41 years ago. We know there is a bond between the two, but there is also some sort of terrible secret, and it is through this fateful dinner we are to learn the answers. Márai compellingly takes us through the past as we learn about our main character’s upbringing, childhood, and the intense bond of friendship he shares with a man his same age. The eloquence and articulation the main character possesses throughout that last dinner keeps the reader drawn to the story. I felt a sense of suspense and anxiety with each page I turned. In reference to my negative thoughts earlier: there tended to be a long-winded nature to our main character, which fits his personality and the context of the story, but at times could wane on my interest. That was the only thing that kept this novel from being my literary savior.
I definitely recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a beautiful story, elegant style, and a chance to transport themselves to another time and place. I’m an excited reader again and I’m glad it is because of this simple, yet moving story.
“Self-respect is the irreplaceable foundation of our humanity; wound it, and the hurt, the damage is so scalding that not even death can ease the torture. Vanity, you say. Yes, vanity…and yet self-respect is what gives a person his or her intrinsic value. That is why I so feared this secret, that is why people accept the compromises they do, even cheap and cowardly ones.” ~ Embers