Saturday, February 01, 2014

Memory and Desire

by Sándor Márai

“No, the secret is that there's no reward and we have to endure our characters and our natures as best we can, because no amount of experience or insight is going to rectify our deficiencies, our self-regard, or our cupidity. We have to learn that our desires do not find any real echo in the world. We have to accept that the people we love do not love us, or not in the way we hope. We have to accept betrayal and disloyalty, and, hardest of all, that someone is finer than we are in character or intelligence.”  ― Sándor Márai, Embers

Sandor Marai has an uncanny ability to demonstrate his ideas through things that are not said. Embers is permeated with nostalgia for the past, a past that, as in Proust, cannot be recaptured. This book is excellent not just for how well it is written and how well it is structured, but for the author's ability to demonstrate his ideas through what is not said.  "My homeland no longer exists . . . Everything's come apart. My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded. When that happens the only thing to do is to go away."(p 92) This is the statement of Konrad, the childhood friend of Henrik who is the protagonist of this amazing novel.

We are introduced to Henrik in the first line of the book, "In the morning, the old general spent considerable time in the wine cellars," where he is aging in his seventies just like a fine wine. With his aging come memories of a long life, of youthful friends, of love and betrayal. All this is narrated in a short novel of little more than two hundred pages. It is a story that depends more on feelings and of contrasts between Henrik and his former friend Konrad who is returning for one final confrontation. The contrasts include that of passion and reason, of the world with and without music, of the differing personalities of the south, where Konrad has spent much of his life and the north of Austria and Hungary where Henrik has remained.

Interlaced with their lives is the figure of Nini, a mother figure to Henrik, who is described as, "a power that surged through the house, the people in it, the walls, the objects, the way some invisible galvanic current animates Punch and the Policeman on the stage at the traveling puppet show. Sometimes people have the feeling that the house and its contents could, like ancient fabrics, fall apart at a touch and crumble to nothing if Nini were not there to hold them together with her strength."(p 11) Nini is always in the background, appearing in the first chapter and present in the last. But there is also Krisztina who would marry Henrik, but spend years estranged from her husband even as she does not leave their estate. The ghost of Krisztina hovers over Henrik throughout the novel as does the aura of death. The story is part mystery and these themes are part of the mystery along with the reason for the estrangement of Henrik and Konrad.

It is Henrik who enigmatically isolates himself, yet opens the house for one last elaborate meeting with Konrad, once his friend and now his nemesis. The world of the past no longer exists except in their memory. Some people have moved on, but the past must be revisited on one last evening. It is this evening that with a mere gesture Henrik throws Krisztina's diary, unopened, "into the embers of the fire," (p 204). This action symbolizes his life, his loves, his era. It is the feeling of this era which Marai is superb in capturing. It is the heavy weight of centuries of empire that is encapsulated in his simple brushstrokes. One could compare him to Mann or perhaps Proust in his ability to explore philosophy and memory and desire, but ultimately his is a unique voice that bears reading and rereading to explore the complex relationships and meanings that are hidden within his beautiful novel.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

Now that is a great quote that you posted above. As i get older I think more and more about these aspects of life, including memory, how the past is really gone yet so important, etc.

The plot involving the one last meeting also sounds intriguing.

James said...

Thanks, this is in large part a novel about memory and the shadows of a life with friendship, love, and regret.