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Sándor Márai: A gyertyák csonkig égnek (Embers)

The novel opens in 1940. The General – we later learn that his name is Hendrik, though we do not learn his surname – is living alone in his ample castle, with only his servants. His wife is long since dead and he has no children. He was an only child. Hungary was not involved in the war till June 1941. Indeed, World war II, Hitler, Horthy and the Nazis do not get mentioned in this book.

We learn something of his early history. His father was a Hungarian officer when he met his future wife, a French countess, in Paris. They married and returned to the castle in Hungary. The father went on to become a general. When he was born, there was a sixteen-year old woman, Nini, living in the village. She got pregnant but refused to tell her father who the father was. He beat her and then threw her out. She went to the castle, where she became Hendrik’s wet nurse. Seventy-five years later, a sprightly ninety-one, she is still serving Hendrik.

When he was a bit older, his mother took him to France to meet her relatives. In Paris he became seriously ill. Doctors were called but to no avail. Nini was summoned from Hungary and took four days to arrive. Hendrik soon recovered. Of course, nobody uttered a word about the cause of the child’s illness, but everybody knew: the boy needed love.

When he was ten, his father enrolled him the officer training academy in Vienna. The boy in the next bed was Konrad. The two became fast friends, despite one obvious difference. Hendrik’s family were well-off, Konrad’s were not. Indeed, they were were very poor and had given up everything for their son. There was one other difference. Konrad was very enthusiastic about music – he was related to Chopin – and Hendrik was not.

When the friendship was four years old, the boys began to shut themselves off from other people and to have their own secrets. The relationship steadily deepened, and also became more hermetic. This was accepted by the others. When they became young officers, they shared a flat. Hendrik was out most evenings, wining and dining and womanising. Konrad could not afford to and refused to accept money from Hendrik, so he stayed at home and read.

Their careers progressed and Hendrik married Krisztina. When they were thirty-four, Konrad came and stayed nearby. One day they went out hunting together. Hendrik loved hunting, Konrad less so. Something happened for, immediately after the hunt, Konrad left. The two men had had no contact since that time, a period of nearly forty-two years. Early in the book, Hendrik receives notification that Konrad is in town and wishes to see him. He is duly invited.

Much of the second part of the book is about what happened all those years ago. Indeed, it is mainly about Hendrik telling Konrad what he thinks happened which Konrad does not contradict. What happened clearly scarred both men. Konrad has spent most of his life in Malaya. Hendrik did serve in World War I. He was later offered a command which he felt was above his abilities and took early retirement from the army, aged fifty. Since then he has lived in his castle, reading and studying and thinking about the events of that time when he was thirty-four.

Both men come from a tradition where honour and integrity are all-important. Hendrik cannot understand why his friend left without warning and without any subsequent contact and feels betrayed. When Hendrik’s father first meets his future wife, he says to her, in French, In our country feelings are more intense and more decisive and this certainly seems to be the case.

But it is not just honour and integrity that count but also passion. We might expect passion in a novel from Spain or Italy to be about passion but, at least to us in the West, it is not necessarily something we associate with Hungary. As the quotation above show, Hendrik’s father shows it and so does Hendrik. The question is whether the relationship between two men can be considered in the same light. Hendrik very much implies that it can.

We were friends, and the word carries a meaning only men understand. It is time you learned its full implication. We weren’t comrades or companions or fellow-sufferers. Nothing in life can replace what we had. No all-consuming love could offer the pleasures that friendship brings to those it touches and Friendship is no ideal state of mind; it is a law, and a strict one, on which the entire legal systems of great cultures were built. It reaches beyond personal desires and self-regard in men’s hearts, its grip is greater than that of sexual desire. He even states later that there is an element of eroticism in it, even though neither he nor Konrad had homosexual feelings towards one another. It is this element of passion, more so than honour and integrity that makes this book something different and something special. It may not be something we can share or fully appreciate but it is something we must acknowledge and is undoubtedly why this book is now considered a classic of Hungarian literature.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian 1942 by Révai Kiadón
First published in English 2001 by Alfred A Knopf
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway (from the German)