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The trauma of friendship


Embers, translated into English by Carol Janeway, is simple with no great sweeps of history or plot. Instead, much of it is about two close friends, in the twilight of their lives, talking about the past.

THIS month I've had the privilege of reading one of the wisest novels I've read in a long time. Although the edition I'm reviewing was published by Viking/Penguin, I feel no guilt in writing about it, as it was first published by Alfred Knopf in the U.S.. Embers by Sandor Marai was originally published in 1942 and is the first of the Hungarian writer's books to be translated into English. Immediately upon publication in English it swept the western world. It is to be hoped that it'll find a wider audience in this country.

Its author was born in 1900 in the town of Kassa in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire. The author of over 20 books, 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, Marai commited suicide in 1989. Why did I like the book so much? Is it because I really love the great modern European writers like Gustav Herling, Milan Kundera, Bernard Schlink and Bruno Schulz with their heightened sense of tragedy, the dark gloomy settings against which the characters play out their lives, the complex emotional webs they are constantly negotiating?

Perhaps, but there is also about Embers, which has been brilliantly translated into English by Carol Janeway, an elemental in its simplicity and it is all the greater for being so. There are no great sweeps of history or plot to be found in the novel, much if it is simply about two lifelong friends in the twilight of their lives talking about the past. But the conversation is about the most brilliant you will encounter in fiction this year or the next. It touches upon life, love, hate, infidelity, music, war, aspiration, but most of all it's about the bond of friendship, specifically non-erotic friendship between men, possibly the most powerful and vexatious emotional relationship that can exist between human beings.

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."

The character who does most of the talking about friendship and other matters of the heart is the General, a wealthy aristocrat and soldier and Konrad, an impoverished relative of Chopin, who is musically and artistically inclined and therefore, in essence, "different" from his friend. In their dotage they meet in the General's isolated castle in the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains. The two friends, inseparable in childhood and early manhood, haven't seen each other in 41 years - ever since Konrad left town without warning. As the novel unfolds, we discover why.

The conversation begins at an elaborate dinner and continues through the night, long after the household is asleep.

As dawn begins to break it finally comes to an end, and the two friends part once more — for the last time given that they are in their mid-70s now, and are unlikely to make the effort to meet once more, now that their debts have been settled.

Marai writes with the wisdom of a great philosopher and the narrative skill of a crack detective novelist. Not once did the pace flag nor my interest wane, although often the subjects discussed could have led to turgid, didactic prose. Indeed, many of today's novelists and would-be writers would do well to read Embers carefully to try and discover the secrets of great literary writing. Here, for example, picked at random is a little soliloquy on growing old: "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... "

That's the quality of perception you can expect on virtually every page. And the drama and terrible secrets buried at the heart of the story give the truths that rise to the surface a dark and compelling edge. The reviewer for the Washington Post thought that Embers was perfect.

So do I.

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