Heather's Reviews > Embers

Embers by Sándor Márai
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's review
Mar 13, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: fiction, literature-in-translation

What I loved about this book was the atmosphere of it, the attention to detail, the descriptive passages. Henrik lives in the two-hundred-year-old castle in the forest where he was born, and I loved reading about the castle and its fireplaces and chandeliers, the fading silks, the big empty rooms, the wildness of the world outside, the contrast between the castle and life in Paris (where Henrik's mother is from) or Vienna. I loved passages like this one, about Henrik's mother, who met his father in France and moved to Hungary with him:
The first snow was already on the mountains as they finally settled in and began to live their lives there; it surrounded the castle and laid siege to it like a grim northern army. At night deer and stags slipped out of the forest to stand motionless under the moonlight in the snow, heads cocked as they observed the lighted windows with their grave animal eyes that gave back a mysterious blue glow, and the music escaping from the castle reached their ears. "Do you see them?" said the young woman as she sat at the keyboard, and laughed.

Or these two passages about Vienna in the late 1880s:

That winter, carnival season broke out like a happy epidemic. Every evening in the white-and-gold salons there was dancing under the flickering tongues of flame in the gaslit chandeliers. Snow kept falling, and coachmen drover pairs of lovers silently through the white air. All Vienna danced in the snowflakes and every morning the son of the Officer of the Guards went to the old indoor riding ring to watch the Spanish riders and their Lippizaners going through their paces. (57)


Vienna was in high, good mood. The stuffy high-vaulted taverns in the old city served the best beer in the world, and as the bells chimed midday the streets filled with the rich smells of goulash, spreading friendliness and goodwill as if there were eternal piece on earth. Women carried fur muffs and wore hats with feathers, and veils that they pulled down over their faces against the snow, leaving a glimpse of nose and flashing eyes. At four in the afternoon the gaslights were lit in the cafés and coffee with whipped cream was served to the generals and officials at their regular tables while, outside, blushing women shrank into the corners of hired carriages as they raced toward bachelor apartments where the log fires were already lit, for it was carnival and there was an uprising of love throughout the city, as if the agents of some giant conspiracy were goading and inflaming hearts across all levels of society (58).

Despite the loveliness of passages like those, this book had its difficult stretches for me. Henrik's conception of the world feels so rigid, so old-fashioned, and some of that worldview appears in the narration, too, even when Henrik isn't the speaker. At one point, there's a bit about how in their youth Konrad and Henrik met women and had love affairs, but how those affairs weren't the center of their life because "something more powerful made itself felt. A feeling known only to men. A feeling called friendship" (64). (Later passages call this view of friendship and its centrality into question, but still, that sentence nearly made me throw the book across the room.) Elsewhere, Henrik talks about the idea of friendship being a duty; there is much talk of duty and honor and loyalty, and it's clear that he feels that the world of his youth and of these ideals is passing, or has already passed, but I couldn't really find any poignancy in this, only tedium. There's a big long section in the middle of the book that's basically a monologue by Henrik, in which he's telling Konrad about all the things he's been thinking about over the past forty-one years, and what he's figured out or guessed about the circumstances of their parting: it feels true to character, but it isn't a joy to read: it's very speech-y, very formal, and pretty off-putting. Things pick up a bit closer to the end, where Henrik gets to talking not just about friendship but about passion, specifically about Krisztina. Overall, though, the balance of this book didn't quite work for me: it is lovely for what it is, but I wanted to be reading a different book, a book with less philosophizing, a book that was full of images rather than speeches.

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Reading Progress

March 12, 2011 – Started Reading
March 13, 2011 – Shelved
March 13, 2011 – Shelved as: fiction
March 13, 2011 – Shelved as: literature-in-translation
March 16, 2011 –
page 94
March 18, 2011 – Finished Reading

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