Friday, November 03, 2006

Sandor Marai: Embers

The publishing history of the Sandor Marai's Hungarian novel Embers reads like a plot of another novel. First published in 1942 Budapest, it remained largely obscure throughout its author's life. Because of his anti-fascism and later antipathy towards communism, he had to live his entire life in exile, first in Italy and then in America where he finally committed suicide in 1989, ironically just before the collapse of Soviet Union and the tearing down of the Iron curtain. It was rediscovered in the late nineties and after being translated into French and German it became a bestseller in most of the Europe. This english version is surprisingly and indeed rather irritatingly translated not for the original Hungarian but from German. The last time I had a similar experience was with Stanislaw Lem's polish novel Solaris which was translated from French rather than its original language. It is surprising how even such high profile authors get such shoddy treatment from publishers.

Anyway, the novel itself is quite good, though to be honest it left me slightly underwhelmed in the end. The structure of the novel is quite simple. A General who is now in his mid-seventies, living alone in a castle in the foothills of carpathian mountains, waits for a friend Konrad who is coming to him after a gap of fourty one years. Konrad disappeared one day, "the day of the hunt", mysteriously, without annoucing or telling anybody. The dinner scene between the two friends is just a pretext for the general to deliver a long monologue about the things that have troubled him and things he has thought over in his solitude for the entire fourty one years. Reading it is like reading a suspense novel so I won't reveal the plot althogh it isn't hard to guess what could have happened between the two men and the General's wife. The way Marai withholds information and reveals details slowly makes it a very engrossing read. But overall it feels like too simple a device for storytelling. Granted the monologue is full of wisdom and reading it will make you think about things like the conflict between duty and loyalty on the one hand and passion and desire on the other, or the ties that define masculine friendships, the ability of music to capture the unsayable or how difficult it is for people of different temperaments to be in a honest and lasting relationship and yet how the mysterious force of eros brings and keeps two "different" people together, how people take their emotional wounds to their graves (the original Hungarian title translates to "Candles burned till the end") and lots of things like that. But on a purely structural level the novel feels a little too simple and straightforward.

The general's monologue at places does sound like a tendentious and didactic speech but it will make sense if you take into account the fact that it is the moment that he has prepared for the last fourty one years, or so he claims. The prose style is good, though I have a feeling that a lot was lost in the translation because I could only feel the tone of emotional repression at few moments. It is not sustained throughout the novel and slacks and degenerats into blandness at a few places.

To end here is a quote from towards the end of the book:


"What do you think? Do you also believe that what gives our lives 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 and behaviour? I would like an answer, if you can," he says, his voice louder and more imperious.

"Why do you ask me?" says the guest quiety, "when you know that the answer is yes."


The complete review page of the book links to more reviews. Most of them are very enthusiastic.

15 comments:

bhupinder said...

I never got down to review this book that I admire so much.

Thanks for the review. You speak my language :-)

Madhur said...

"Is it indeed about desiring any one person, or is it about desiring desire itself?"
beautiful, that's ens causa sui :)

Alok said...

bhupinder: thank you :)

madhur: i had to google it. it is deep, and true too ;)

love and desire are "ens causa sui". learnt something new to impress people!

jyothsnay said...

Alok
well-presented review and kicked off the nerves on a pleasant note...thank you!
now, let me step in...
Passion in our lives or being passionate about something certainly gives a direction & subsequent accleration for the rigmarolic existence most of us lead...while doing so,the individal acquires a richer and fuller meaning to his/her existence...a sweet chaos in the midst of chaos isn't funny, but chaos in the midst of order is...ensues as the individual struggles not to be swept away from his/her world by that unbridled passion*for someone/something,yet to feel abandoned by the fulfillment.It is inhuman as perceived by the outer world, as being introspected by the individual, but vehemently justified as a human tendency by the wearer.
Desiring any one person is a subset of desiring desire itself..when you desire someone,you are focussing your energies on yourself as well as the other person,..in normal terms, talking her language, introducing self to the kind of activities she does, in that process finding a never ever explored facet of your personality...so that means, you are loving yourself,you are hedonist..so deeper passion, the strings that tug at your heart fervently brings out the hedonist in you...
talking about the passion,who comes to the mind spontaneously?

....
I want to cover you with love when
next i see you, with caresses,
with ecstasy,

I want to gorge you with all the joys of the flesh, so that you faint and die

I want you to be amazed by me,
and to confess to yourself that
you had never even dreamed of such
transports...

when you are old i want you to
recall those few hours

I want your dry bones to quiver
with joy when you think of them

Gustave Flaubert, French writer,
to Louis Colet
Aug 15th, 1846

Alok said...

Wow, have you read Flaubert-Colet letters? I have been looking for that book for some time.

This whole desire and "ens causa sui" thing reminds me of this in Proust...

from the second vol

I had arrived at a state almost of complete indifference to Gilberte when, two years later, I went with my grandmother to Balbec. When I succumbed to the attraction of a strange face, when it was with the help of some other girl that I hoped to discover gothic cathedrals, the palaces and gardens of Italy, I said to myself sadly that this love of ours, in so far as it is love for one particular creature, is not perhaps a very real thing, since if the association of pleasant or unpleasant trains of thought can attach it for a time to a woman so as to make us believe that it has been inspired by her, in a necessary sequence of effect to cause, yet when we detach ourselves, deliberately or unconsciously, from those associations, this love, as though it were indeed a spontaneous thing and sprang from ourselves alone, will revive in order to bestow itself on another woman.

adhyayan said...

As always it is interesting to read ...Oh for me, this is the first case of a book translated from its non-original language... I am going to take the depression books from library (afternoon demon and another one that you mentioned)..

Alok said...

I hope I made it clear that the books are very grim and depressing to read :)

You will like Noonday Demon, it is very informative. The other book is very difficult and assumes a lot of background knowledge from the reader and I didn't really read it in full.

jyothsnay said...

Alok...
@This whole desire and "ens causa sui" thing reminds me of this in Proust...Enchanting!
it's such an inviting coincindence when I am penning my thoughts down on "On a Voyage to find you"....
especially,
When I succumbed to the attraction of a strange face,

my thoughts flow...
The wind blowing in the tender grassblades
by my path, whispers many of your tales,
hey listen, those untold promises glide
fine as dew drops glistening in the sunlight....
in one of those sweet dreams I slept,
strange fits of passion have I found self....

Szerelem said...

hmmm I think most books written in Eastern European languages are translated from translations (usually French or german. Most of Kunderas works have been translated from French (at least they used to be). Ismail Kadere is translated from French rather than Albanian. (have you read his works? they are really quite good)

Alok said...

I didn't know that about Kundera. I must not have noticed. I have read Unbearable Lightness and Immortality and always thought they were translated from Czech. Kundera himself switched to French later in his career. No, I Haven't read anything by Kadare yet... Which book should i read first?

jyothsna: thank you for the poetic words as always... glad you liked the proust quote.

Szerelem said...

hmm I havent read nearly enough Kadare but I really liked Palace of Dreams and Three Arched Bridge. highly reccomended.

Antonia said...

you read so many books that I like, too :)
have read this quite some time ago but was impressed by the way these both figures where displayed, teh general and his friend and that after all they manage to keep the secret and don't read the woman's diary...I thought he is able to describe human conflict without any euphemistic fuss, his diaries are good too, yet I fiond in his novels, same topic is a it repeated...

Alok said...

szerelem: thanks! will see if i can get them anywhere here.

antonia: wow, so you have read Marai's diaries too!! His books are still being translated to English. So far only two are available, you must have read it in German...

it won't surprise you to know what i am reading next -- thomas bernhard's the loser (the glenn gould book) :)

Antonia said...

very strange somehow that Bernhard's the Loser is translated as loser in german it is 'Untergeher' which means someone who goes down or below, not neceassary someone who loses....but thats how it is with translation...
yes read the diaries in german but not a lot of them, rather the late ones....hope you enjoy the Bernhard....I like very much he is such a fan of Glenn Gould...

Alok said...

It is indeed sad to think that so much is lost in translation, but i think we should still be grateful to translators...

Will try to put down my thoughts on the book when I finish it, I actually haven't started it yet.