Customer Reviews: Embers
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on August 4, 2003
I was moved to add my voice to your reviews of "Embers" for two reasons: because it is such an excellent piece of literature, and because I have read it in its original Hungarian and now in English. Viewing it from such a unique perspective, I can say that it is an outstanding translation and is as effective in English as in Hungarian. While the setting may seem exotic to Americans, the problems it explores are deeply psychological and universal to mankind. While it may not be the choice of readers of popular action novels, it would appeal to serious readers of fine literature. (I speak as one who has worked as a translator, written fiction, and holds degrees in psychology.) The book explores the friendship and love of two men and the meaning of the rift that tears them apart for 41 years and defines the existence of at least one of them for the remainder of his life. The novel is developed masterfully, solely from the viewpoint of one of the men, through his well planned monologue in the presence of his friend, during which he wrestles aloud with the great questions that have defined his life. In the end we realize that the presence of his friend is almost incidental, as the speaker has come to grips with his questions through internal dialogue and soul searching over 41 years of self-enforced withdrawal from the world. In the end he seems content with his conclusions and complete within himself, having answered his own questions, although the presence of his friend was necessary in order to achieve his piece of mind.
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on January 10, 2002
This book is a diamond: brilliant, clear, cold, and hard.
The language is particularly remarkable because the credits state that that the English transation of this book was made not from the orginal Hungarian but from the German translation of the Hungarian. It is a double tour de force of the translators' art.
Among this work's many charms is the period detail of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the very end of its long run, and an Old World culture that still echoes in memories of the airs and graces of immigrant grandparents. They say that history is written by the victorious (in war); well, although literature is most frequently published by the victorious as well, the vanquished keep on writing, and manuscripts don't burn.
As other reviewers have stated, the arresting story line of this book is told in the course of a single evening, but covers the lives of two old men beginning from the time they were boys, and centering an ambiguous act or acts of betrayal which occured at their last meeting forty-one years earlier.
There is not a single extraneous word, or wasted image, in this volume. This becomes more obvious upon second reading once one has satisfied oneself that one has solved, to the extent possible, the mystery presented in the storyline. The depth and subtlety of psychological insight that Marai brings to this work is astonishing.
The effect is a combination of the film "My Dinner with Andre," but without the humor, as written by Josephine Hart, the author of _Damage_. What is truly phenomenal to the 21st century American reader is that an author of such power and mastery could have lived and died (in Los Angeles, or thereabouts, in 1989!) utterly unknown until recently.
I disagree with comparisons of this author to Proust or Dostoevsky. He is more nearly akin to Pushkin, and this work can stand next to the _Queen of Spades_. You will not regret the time spent reading this book.
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HALL OF FAMEon December 13, 2001
The good news is that a substantial body of work from Mr. Sandor Marai of Hungary has been found once again, in a manner of speaking, and for those who love brilliant writing, the Publisher Knoph is translating his work into English. His novel, "Embers" is one of the better books I have read this year.
An old castle in The Carpathian Mountains is the setting for what approaches a monologue. The mood of the book is consistent with another who hailed from these mountains as Vlad The Impaler. The book is not a horror novel, rather a disturbing psychological thriller that explores what is truly at the heart of an issue after it has been examined for over 4 decades. Coincidentally the age of the author when he wrote the work, and the time that expires between one dinner between the closest of friends and its sequel, are both 42 years. The book is remarkable as he writes of the view of life from the perspective of people in their 8th and 10th decades of life, and the prose reads as authoritative and appropriate. It reads like a man who has lived twice as long as the author had lived when he penned this work. The writing is wise.
Mr. Marai takes a familiar theme that would normally result in rapid responses from those involved, and instead suspends any conclusion for over 4 decades. He presents two boys that grow up together and form bonds that are so absolute, there is nowhere for their friendship to improve. Their bond is complete; their backgrounds are polar opposites, which may give rise to the fall. There is an intentional breach, and then there is an event that never gets beyond the "almost" stage. Had it occurred it would have been the greatest of tragedies.
The injured party, whether through right or the power of family and position, could have done anything he chose to his friend and betrayer. For over 40 years he could have easily sought him out, but yet he never did, he never even contemplated seeking a traditional revenge. When the faithless friend comes to visit, dinner is served with a meticulous eye for the reproduction of every detail of the dinner 42 years before. There are only two at the table as opposed to three, and yet the missing third is a tangential issue, important but not the focus. The host queries his guest about events of which he knows all the details save for one. He already knows what happened, and is comfortable as to motive. The author builds such expectations in the reader that you will wonder if the final act can possibly match the first.
There is only one question, however there are two sources for the truth. The host for most of his life has held one and he has never violated the seal, his friend alone can provide the answer if the book remains closed. The resolution of the tale is brilliant. It is complex, and also beautifully logical when expressed as this one character of fiction has decanted it for most of his life. There is no written slight of hand. This is a completely new approach, a unique response to what should seem cliché. Absolutely great reading.
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on November 18, 2001
What a magnificent novel this is, and how ironic that it lingered in obscurity for two generations after it was published! "Embers" is an entire world in miniature, a slim volume in which the author boldly takes on some of the largest questions facing humanity: what are the true meanings of words such as loyalty and friendship? And revenge...
41 years after their last fateful meeting, two old friends eat dinner together in a Hungarian castle that is a relic of another age, when Vienna was the centre of Europe and young men waltzed with their girls to the hot new tunes of Strauss the younger. A world war has ended that age forever, and a second and even more terrible conflict has just begun. But for these two men, the world around them means little. Far more important is the reality of what happened four decades earlier, and whether a terrible act of betrayal took place. The author uses the devices of swift scene paintings and extensive monologue to expertly conduct the reader through the story, and the result is a truly unforgettable work of fiction. The translation by Carol Brown Janeway is admirable.
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on May 1, 2003
Every once in a blue moon we come across a book that we will love and it will haunt us forever, no matter what else you read this story will be in your mind, and every now and then you will think of its characters, its events, the feelings you had when you read it. Sándor Márai's Embers is one of those books for me.
After having this novel recommended so many times I decided to read it-- and what was my surprise if not it it is one of the finest narratives ever. Everything is subtle, the words are crafted, the magic it brings is unforgettable. After a 41 years-old break tow great friends are about to meet again for a dinner. Between them there are unfinished business, questions that one depends on the other to know the answer-- if such thing is possible. And a woman that may --or may not-- have led them to fall apart. Half of the book or so, tells the events while General Henrik is getting prepared for meeting his friend Konrad --and flashbacks tell how they become friends and what happened afterwards.
Márai is smart enough as writer not to provide answers, they would be to simple and plain. Rather than that, he raises up many questions, and leaves a lot of room for our imagination. What really happened is impossible to know, but does we really care about the truth? Anything is possible, but now, 41 years later, nothing makes any difference, both Henrik and Korad have lived in shadow of those events, and it is not possible to change things that happened. It is to late for atone anything. By the way, this book will please those --just like me-- who enjoyed Ian McEwan's Atonement. Both books are superb, well written and unforgettable.
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on July 24, 2004
Reading Embers is like taking a trip back in time and the analogy of the title to the plot is significant. Here is an age old story of a love triangle embedded within a searing friendship. To read this little tome is to sit down with age, two old men, once supposed best of friends, to review their lives and close a forty-one year gap. The darkness of the story's setting echoes in the revelation of the great secret of why these men parted ways. Their survival of very different pasts only accentuates the agony of a connection lost, and then found. No happily ever after here! But there is resolution as time is nearly at an end for both men's lives.

This book has the feeling of a European tale of old, and remarkably it has been suppressed for more years than the gap between friends. Markai wrote and published the original in 1942. But his persecution by the Communists in his native Hungary included the repression of his work. Luckily it was resurrected in the late 1980's.

Embers, while often painfully slow, as the friends reveal endless detail of their forty-one years apart, glows with revenge and suspense, a red-hot and dangerous fire left by a horrible abandonment of the General by the faithless Konrad. This is Old World fiction worth perusing in the 21st century.
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on May 8, 2002
I was fortunate enough to come across Embers at a ridiculously low price in a book sale and having had my appetite for foreign writers whetted by Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, I decided to plunge in at the deep end. For fans of the phenomenon that is 'magic realism' this will definitely appeal but, as much as I loved this novel, there is bound to be a voice out there somewhere that will level the accusation that it is pretentious. Incidentally Embers is written with the same prose quality and the same level of erudition that haunts Invisible Cities (Calvino again) but how to approach it with the intention of writing an original review is another matter!
On a superficial level, Embers is a novel about the loyalty, Platonic love and the inevitable betrayal of these values that will occur when a woman comes between two men. Henrik is an aristocrat who has chosen to withdraw from the society around him and is awaiting the renewal of a friendship with Konrad, his former companion who he has not seen for some 41 years. As he prepares for Konrad's arrival it becomes apparent that whilst universal time has continued, the temporal status of Henrik's existence is such that he hasn't adjusted from the moment that his faith in those around him was fractured by an act that he can neither explain nor rationalise. Having maintained an unquestionable fidelity to each other there came a point where the modern collided with the old-world and chose to progress rather than remain stoic to its traditions.
Henrik's only remaining companion is his nurse, Nini, and it is in this permanent isolation, continued stasis that they choose to remain. The friendship between Konrad and Henrik was borne out of childhood meeting and a military upbringing in which the social deference and economic differences were acknowledged and respected. It is this feudal, hierarchical society that demands a constant awareness of place and an individual's importance but Konrad's inability to adjust to rigid constraints leads him to seek expression through the arts, most notably music. It is worth bearing in mind this is a novel with a context that could be seen as politically stifled and so when Konrad discovers a form of communication that is dangerously free and personal he can break rank from the other soldiers around him. By transgressing the rules of his own military world this poses a threat to the life that Henrik has introduced him to.
The opportunity that Henrik offers Konrad reflects the nature of Embers. Although the novel transcends generations it eventually returns to the point at which the decision must be made. Time cannot progress until a resolution has been found, Henrik cannot return to the outside world until he can explain and resolve the problems within his own. It is a matter of duty and honour to his previous generations that Henrik atones for his error in allowing an outsider into the culture and values they created but Konrad must pay his own penance for his decision to put love before friendship.
Above all it is a novel about the desire to return to forgotten cultures, about the different levels of love and friendship but it is also the work of a writer whose prose is immaculate and must be sampled to gain the full flavour.
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VINE VOICEon May 11, 2004
The title "Embers" makes this reader think of a smoldering fire - one either ready to die out-- or ready to be reawakened - into a full blazing *fire*. Indeed, the metaphor fits, the unexpected shock of *what* it is that could erupt into a flame and why the title fits, becomes cystal clear about half-way thorugh the book. Similar to Franz Kafka, Marai builds a personal tension that becomes an existential experience, a psychological conundrum - for the General (Henrik). The General has lived with certain questions - questions he needs answered.

The book begins with the General describing his boyhood friendship with Konrad. The friendship began in military school during the Austro-Hungarian empire. The General was of an upper class background, Konrad's parents sold their land and lived on the edge of poverty to provide their son, an advantage in life. The General's father made an observation about Konrad, the first time he visited their home. Konrad was playing a Chopin piece with Henrik's mother, when Henrik's father made a very telling observation about Konrad, "He is different kind of man". This observation sets up the mystery which the book gradually, very gradually reveals. It is the reason why the book is so intriguing and fascinating. The reader wants to discover why is Konrad 'different'. Just what does this mean?

The General is preparing his castle for Konrad's visit. The friends are going to reunite after 41 years of separation. Although, they remained on the best of terms as the closest of friends for 24 years - something happened - it made Konrad leave, without a word. The General needed to know, why did Konrad take off with no word of good-bye- to explore the world. Konrad often stayed at the General's castle and dined with the General and his wife, Krisztina. This reader suspected that somehow Krisztina held the key to his unexpected and unexplained departure. However there is a deeper unexplained ... primitive ... dark secret ... waiting to be unraveled. It is revealed in elegant prose. The book is deeply moving and filled with suspense, a mesmerizing experience. Erika Borsos (erikab93)
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As full of dramatic tension as anything written by Poe, this masterpiece of character development idealizes the personal values of a lost world, and celebrates the rewards and obligations of friendship. Henrik, a former Austro-Hungarian general and member of the aristocracy, is approaching the end of his life, having lived 75 years according to the "male virtues: silence, solitude, and the inviolability of one's word." He is awaiting a visit from Konrad, his former best friend, a man he has not seen or heard from in 41 years and 43 days, a man he believes betrayed him and upon whom he has yearned for revenge for more than half his life.

The simple narrative framework allows Henrik to tell the story through his own meditations and his one-sided conversation with Konrad after his arrival. Touching first on the lives and marriages of Henrik's parents, his wife's parents, and then Konrad's parents, Henrik slides obliquely and seductively into the story of his friendship with Konrad, his courtship of Krisztina, and the first four years of his own marriage. As tiny details emerge and build upon one another, the dramatic irony grows. Henrik's vision of himself, his motivations, and his actions appear in sharp relief against the conclusions being drawn by the reader. Henrik is, above all, an aristocrat, imprisoned by a value system he also embraces.

As the parallel dilemmas he imposes on his wife and Konrad emerge ironically from Henrik's narrative, the reader is simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by Henrik's view of his own dilemma and his desire for Truth. A heart-stopping climax and Konrad's dramatic reply to his interrogation, along with numerous breath-taking descriptions of nature, leave the reader awed by Marai's talent and grateful that this very clever and sensitive study of character and values has been reclaimed for posterity. Mary Whipple
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on November 13, 2001
Two old friends meet after 40 yers of not seeing each other to talk about the things that separated them. Set in an old castle in Hungary, the novel explores the feelings, doubts and desperation of Henrik, the owner of the castle as he finally encounters Konrad and asks him about the fateful night 41 years ago. That night changed their lives for ever and neither of them can move on and die in peace before they talk again (I can't be more specific without giving away spoilers).
At the end of this night-long conversation, both realize that their cowardice, pride and hurt has ruined their lives. The embittered, vengeful soldiers do not find the resolution they were looking for, but it does not really matter, because they are old, tired and empty.
The prose is beautiful. Almost the entire novel is a monologue of Henrik. The plot itself is simple and straighforward (that is why I can't give more details without giving away the story), but the emotions the character goes through are examined with great detail and lyricism.
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