What’s important is that finally one answers with one’s life…

I cannot remember where I first heard about this novel, but when I did I knew immediately that I wanted to read it. It was written back in 1942 by the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, but was only published in English in 2001. Since then a new generation of readers has been discovering this forgotten writer and his great work.

So what’s the book about? Here is the synopsis from the back cover of my edition: As darkness settles on a forgotten castle at the foot of the Carpathian mountains, two men sit down to a final dinner together. They have not seen one another in forty-one years. At their last meeting, in the company of a beautiful woman, an unspoken act of betrayal left all three lives shattered – and each of them alone. Tonight, as wine stirs the blood, it is time to talk of old passions and that last, fateful meeting.

Embers by Sándor Márai

What follows is an intense and brilliantly executed exploration into the limits of friendship, love and betrayal.

Our narrator is a 75 year-old retired general, who has been living in his remote castle in near seclusion for many years. The novel focuses on a surprise visit from the general’s old friend, Konrad, whom he has not seen for 41 years. The two men sit down to an elaborate dinner together, and as the food is served and the wine flows, they mull over the events that occurred all those years ago.

We learn that the last time the two men met was in the same castle, indeed the very same dinning room, but that back then they were also joined by a third person at the table: the beautiful Krisztina.

There are clearly unresolved issues between the two men, and they both know that they need to address these if they are ever to find any kind of peace or closure before they die.

Life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of the world.

This is a serious, sombre yet very human book. It offers a very closely studied account of what is contained within the hearts of men; of their need for relationship, yet also speaks of the challenges that ever threaten to break up this relatedness. I should also add that it is hugely compelling to read, as Sándor Márai structures things perfectly, bringing in new twists just when you think some kind of closure looks like it may be possible. A great novel, masterfully written.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro or Atonement by Ian McEwan, which both also deal with reminiscences of a bygone era and investigate the complexities of past relationships.

What do you think? Do you also believe that what gives our lives their meaning is the passion that suddenly invades us heart, soul, and body, and burns in us forever, no matter what else happens in our lives? And that if we have experienced this much, then perhaps we haven’t lived in vain? Is passion so deep and terrible and magnificent and inhuman?