I rarely read a book twice. My reasoning is that with all the information out in the world waiting to be discovered, why read the same thing again? Nevertheless, there are exceptions when a really fascinating book breaks me from this stubborn habit. My most memorable case of this was Sándor Márai’s Embers (“Candles burn until the end“). The book was originally published in Hungarian all the way back in 1942. It was only translated into English and published in the United States in 2001, a full fifty-nine years after it was written. The story revolves around two old men, Henrik and Konrad, who were once the closest of companions, but whose friendship was shattered by a horrible betrayal. Separated for forty-one years they finally come back together for a dinner at Henrik’s castle located in the woodlands of upper Hungary. There they discuss the events that divided them, specifically an illicit affair Konrad was having with Henrik’s wife Krisztina that came to light when Konrad sensed that Henrik was about to “accidentally” shoot him while they were hunting. Konrad then fled abroad while Henrik and Krisztina continued to live in the castle, but now in separate wings. Eventually Krisztina died and Henrik was left to ponder the betrayal he had suffered from both his wife and best friend. The book revolves around these events and a discussion of them. The dinner between the two men turns into an attack, in the form of a mostly one sided monologue, by Henrik on his old friend’s character.
Sándor Márai & Betrayal of Homeland
As with the best works of literature there are many different ways of looking at Embers. The fact that it was written at a time when Europe was once again being consumed by a world war cannot be overlooked. The two old men are relics of the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire, a world and a way of life that is soon to be swept away forever. The betrayal of Henrik by Conrad is telling. This could be read as a metaphor at the time of East-Central Europe’s recent history, how the Empire and specifically Hungary were betrayed by its numerous ethnic minorities. Henrik is an insider, coming from an old aristocratic military family, while Konrad hales from the eastern reaches of the Empire and is a reflective of those ethnic groups that were subsumed within the empire.
The author Márai had experienced the effects of this geo-political betrayal first hand. He was born and grew up in the city of Kassa located within the Hungarian part of the Empire. Kassa had been transformed into Kosice following the war, when it was placed in the new state of Czechoslovakia. Marai’s hometown was sundered from what ethnic Hungarians believed was its mother country, Hungary. The story mixes the personal with the political in several ways. Even after Henrik subjects Konrad to innumerable accusations, he still admits that despite what happened between them that they will always be bound by friendship, albeit an extremely strained one. This is not unlike the bond that continued to exist – and still does today – between Austria, Hungary and the nations born out of the Empire’s former territories.
A Dangerous Passion
Embers is a well told and gripping story throughout, but there is one scene in the book that takes the art of literature to a whole new level. I have read and reread this scene – which makes up the entirety of Chapter Six – over fifty times. The passage shows Konrad in a very extraordinary manner. In just a few paragraphs, Márai delineates Konrad’s character showing that he has inclinations and talents that go well beyond soldiering or any kind of control. These inclinations have nothing to do with a military career, but will have a decided effect upon the future course of his life. The reader learns that there is something that stirs deep within Konrad. This is something that makes him different from most people, especially other soldiers. It is a difference that contains both the seeds of greatness and betrayal. For Konrad is an artist, not a soldier. He is a musician, but no ordinary one. He is able to unleash the forces that lay behind a great work of art, Frédéric Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie.
The scene takes place in Konrad’s teenage years when he plays the piano with Henrik’s mother, while Konrad and his father, an Officer of the Guards in the Imperial Army look on.
“One evening in summer, he was playing a four-handed piece with Henrik’s mother, when something happened, It was before dinner, they were in the main reception room, the Officer of the Guards and his son were sitting in a corner listening politely, the way patient and well-intentioned people do, with an attitude of “Life is made up of duties. Music is one of them. Ladies wishes are to be obeyed.” They were performing Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie and Henrik’s mother was playing with such passion that the whole room seemed to shimmer and vibrate. As they waited patiently and politely in their corner for the piece finally to end, both father and son had the sensation that some metamorphosis was taking place in Henrik’s mother and in Konrad. It was as if the music were levitating the furniture, as if some mighty force were blowing against the heavy silk curtains, as if every ossified, decayed particle buried deep in the human heart were quickening into life, as if in everyone on earth a fatal rhythm lay dormant, waiting for the predestined moment to begin its fateful beat.
The courteous listeners realized that music is dangerous. But the duo at the piano had lost all thought of danger. The Polonaise-Fantasie was no more than a pretext to loose upon the world those forces that shake and explode the structures of order which man has devised to conceal what lies beneath. They sat straight-backed at the piano, leaning away from the keys a little and yet bound to them, as if music itself were driving an invisible team of fiery mythical horses riding the storm that circled the world, and they were bracing their bodies to maintain a firm grip on the reins in this explosive headlong gallop of unshackled energies. And then, with a single chord, they ended. The evening sun was slanting through the large windows, and motes of gold were spinning in its rays, as if the unearthly racing chariot had stirred up a whirlwind of dust on it way to ruin and the void.”
This is a scene that encapsulates the power of art to reveal both the world and people in ways that can scarcely be imagined. Art, in this case Chopin and the performers interpretation of the Polonaise-Fantasie reveals a vital and dangerous power that “could loose upon the world those forces that shake and explode the structures of order which man has devised to conceal what lies beneath.” Here is the power of art to transcend and reveal the true nature of things. This creation is so powerful that it can destroy the old world and conjure into existence a magnetic, beautiful and frightening new one. This is not the stuff of conservative military men, this is the stuff of revolution, whether personal or political, private or public, it is the stuff beyond all control. This is music acting as an elemental force of both destruction and creation. It is powerful, magnetic, attractive and extremely dangerous. Konrad, in concert with Henrik’s mother, attains transcendence and betrays himself to the audience long before he will betray his best friend.
Fathoming the Depths Of A Man
“Chopin,” said the French wife and mother, breathing heavily. “His father was French.”
“And his mother was Polish,” said Konrad, turning his head sideways and looking out of the windows. “He was a relative of my mother’s,” he added parenthetically, as if ashamed of this connection.
They all paid attention to his words because there was a great sadness in his voice; he sounded like an exile speaking of home and the longing to return. The Officer of the Guards bent forward as he stared at his son’s friend; he seemed to be seeing him for the first time. That evening, when he and his son were alone in the smoking room, he said, “Konrad will never make a true soldier.”
“Why?” asked his son, shocked.
But he knew that his father was right. The Officer of the Guards shrugged his shoulders, lit a cigar, stretched his legs toward the fireplace and watched the curl of smoke. And then calmly, with the assurance of an expert, he said, “Because he is a different kind of man.”
His father was long dead and many years had passed before the General understood what he had meant.
Henrik never forgot this scene and what his father said that evening in the immediate aftermath of that spectacular moment. Years later, long after the terrible betrayal, Henrik realizes that his father understood a great and disturbing truth about Konrad. The truth that comes pouring out in fits of passion, the truth that can end up changing the world and people’s lives forever. The truth inspired by the power of art and music. The truth I learned from Sándor Márai’s Embers.