Sunday, September 23, 2007

Embers (thoughts)

I've been in a hardcore reading mood lately; I've read two books straight through (not even time to list them under 'Currently Reading') and I'm a third of the way through another. Thus, I have a plethora of books to discuss: seven, in fact. And all of them have been exceptionally good.

Nevertheless, Sandor Marai's Embers jumped to the front of the line. Why? Quite frankly, it contains some of the most stunning writing I've ever read. Marai is a Hungarian who, despite being exiled in America, only wrote in his native tongue. Considering that Hungarian happens to be one of the world's more obscure languages, this prevented his work from receiving much attention. Recently, his works have been 'rediscovered' and Knopf is bringing them out. Embers was the first to be translated into English (in 2001); however, it was translated from the German and French versions, not the original Hungarian. Knopf's subsequent releases (Conversations in Bolzano and The Rebels so far) are translated from the original.

While Ember's history makes the English feel a little choppy in the beginning, the translation soon straightens itself out, and by the first thirty pages I realised that I had come across something beautiful. In structure, it rather reminds me Ishiguro's Remains of the Day: a lot of first-person narrative, looking back over the past, all occassioned by a reunion with a long-lost companion. Both books had the same current of wasted life and regrts. While Ishiguro's book left the philosophy between the cracks up to the reader, however, Marai brings the philosophy out into the open.

The idea is simple: an old Austro-Hungarian General, living on his Hungarian estate, prepares to meet his closest friend after a gap of forty-one years. Actually, I'm going to just quote from the back of the book, "Over the ensuing hours host and guest will fight a duel of words and silences, accusations and evasions." This pretty much sums it up, except the word 'duel' is slightly misleading; the friend barely ever talks, so the last two-thirds of the book (it's only 200 pages long) are a monologue delivered by the General. And yes, as a septogenarian, the General indulges in quite a bit of philosophising.

But please don't let this scare you away! Along with the achingly-written philosophical passages, there's a plot that rather creeps up on the reader. Before I knew it, I couldn't put the book down, because I had to find out how it was going to end. I refuse to tell you anything about the plot, because Marai uncovers it slowly and masterfully; if you choose to read this book, I highly recommend avoiding any discussions of it until after you've finished it. Even the back cover, which I didn't read fortunately, contains a spoiler or two. The gradual climb in tension is exquisite. And if you aren't hooked by page fifty, I'd be shocked.

The ending of the book left me utterly satisfied; in fact, the entire book felt perfect. I came away with the same afterglow I felt after reading The Remains of the Day, slightly dazed by the author's skill.

I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys an author that appreciates his readers. That was a bit convoluted, but I think you get the gist. Marai has created a stunning piece of literature, and I want to read more by him very, very soon. A real treat, as well as a shorter read (it took me less than two hours). Check out the passages below to get a sense of his writing (I've put a spoiler alert before the very last one, which hints at part of the plot).

Favourite Passages:
...he thought only in decades, anything more upset him, as if he might be reminded of things he would rather forget... (6)

"For twenty-two years they have been living in this town which reeks like some squalid den where passing traders spend the night-a smell of cooking and cheap perfume and sour bedding. Here they live, and never utter a workd of complaint. For twenty-two years my father has not set foot in Vienna, where he was born and brought up. Twenty-two years and never a journye, never a new piece of clothing, never a summer outing, because I must be made into the masterpiece that they in their weakness failed to achieve in their own lives. Sometimes when I am about to do something, my hand stops in midair. This eternal responsibility. I have even wished them dead," he said very softly. (47)

"The truth is precisely what I don't know."
"But you know the facts," said the nurse sharply.
"Facts are not the truth," retorted the General. (73)

"The wind stirs, too, at this moment, gently, carefully, like the sigh of a sleeping man as he sense the return of the earthly reality into which he was born. The scent of wet leaves, of ferns, of crumbling tree trunks, of rotting pine cones, of the soft carpet of fallen leaves and pine needles slippery from the dew, rises up from the earth to assault you like the smell of two lovers locked in sweat-soaked embrace. A magical moment, which our heathen acnestors used to celebrate deep in the forest, worhsipfully, arms outstretched, facing East: earthbound man in the eternally recurring, spellbound expectation of light, insight, reason." (132)

"Ours was a friendship out of the ancient sagas. And while I walked in the sunshine of life, you chose to remain in the shadows." (139)

"I think that perhaps you have gone mad. I think perhaps it is the music. One cannot be a musician and a relative of Chopin and escape unpunished." (157)

"One always wants to repay the gods with some of one's good fortune. For it is well known that the gods are jealous, and that if they five a mortal a year of happiness, they immediately enter this debt on the ledger and demand repayment at the end of life with crippling interest." (162)

"Things do not simply happen to one...One can also shape what happens to one. One shapes it, summons it, takes hold of the inevitable. It's the human condition." (170)

"Since then I have never met a single person who responded so completely to everything: music, an early morning walk in the woods, the color and scent of a flower, the well-chosen words of an intelligent companion. Nobody could stroke a beautiful piece of cloth or an animal like Krisztina. Nobody took such pleasure in the world's simple gifts: people, animals, stars, books-everything interested her, not in any exaggerated way, not with apedantic outpouring of learning, but with the unprejudiced joy of a child reaching for everything there is to see and do. As if everything in the world was relevant to her, you know?" (176)

"I hate music....I hate this incomprehensible, melodious language which select people can understand and use to say uninhibited, irregular things that are also probably indecent and immoral. Watch their faces and see how strangely they change when they're listening to music." (178)

"Yes-revenge. That is why I neither killed myself nor allowed others to kill me, and that is why I have not killed anyone myself, thank heaven. The time for revenge as come, just as I have wished for so long. My revenge is that you have come here across the world, through the war, over mine-infested seas, to the scene of the crime, to answer to me and to uncover the truth together. That is my revenge." (183)

"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? Is it indeed about desiring any one person, or is it about desiring desire itself? That is the question. Or, perhaps, is it indeed about desiring a particular person, a single, mysterious other, once and for always, no matter whether that person is good or bad, and the intensity of our feelings bears no relation to that individual's qualities or behavior?" (211)

**spoiler: don't read the following quote unless you've already read the book**

"She died because you went away and because I stayed but never once went to her, and because we-the two men to whom she belonged-were more despicable and proud and cowardly abd arrogant and silent than a women can bear; we ran away from her and betrayed her by our survival." (209)

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