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the Complete Review
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Márai Sándor

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To purchase Embers

Title: Embers
Author: Márai Sándor
Genre: Novel
Written: 1942 (Eng.: 2001)
Length: 213 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Embers - US
Embers - UK
Embers - Canada
Die Glut - Deutschland
Les Braises - France
  • Translated by Carol Brown Janeway (apparently -- and outrageously -- not from the Hungarian original but from the German translation. For shame !)
  • Hungarian title: A gyertyák csonkig égnek
  • Embers is being made into a film, directed by Milos Forman and starring Sean Connery, Klaus Maria Brandauer, and Winona Ryder (presumably to be released in late 2004 or 2005)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : atmospheric novel of bygone times, and lost love and friendship

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 19/1/2002 Paul Bailey
Freitag D 8/9/2000 Kerstin Hensel
The Guardian A 5/1/2002 Tibor Fischer
The Guardian . 15/2/2003 Nicholas Lezard
The Hindu A+ 21/7/2002 David Davidar
The Independent B 12/1/2002 Lesley Chamberlain
The LA Times A 11/11/2001 Thomas McGonigle
New Statesman A+ 18/2/2002 Francis Gilbert
The NY Rev. of Books . 20/12/2001 J.M. Cotezee
The NY Times Book Rev. A 14/10/2001 Richard Eder
The Observer A+ 13/1/2002 Anna Shapiro
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Fall/2001 Michael Pinker
The Spectator D 9/2/2002 Byron Rogers
Der Spiegel A 24/5/1999 .
Der Standard A+ 2/10/1999 D.A.Franzetti
TLS A+ 11/1/2002 Alan Brownjohn
Wall St. Journal . 26/10/2001 Bella Stander
The Washington Post A+ 30/9/2001 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but generally very enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "Henrik's monologue is immensely moving and pertinent. He delivers profound meditations on the nature of friendship, domestic bliss and hopeless passion, and the final scene is among the most subtle I have ever read." - Paul Bailey, Daily Telegraph

  • "Der Roman ist nur selten erzählt, sondern Handlungen und Vorgänge werden ständig behauptet. Der zuckrige, aber humorlose Stil verhindert jede wirkliche Figurengestaltung, und die Unmenge Klischees (...) haben mich nichts als verärgert. Da, wo nicht erzählt wird, wird erklärt, und das geschieht fast immer." - Kerstin Hensel, Freitag

  • "Describing the story of Embers is almost to do it a disservice. (...) What about the style ? Translation from Hungarian wasn't a problem, since this version has been translated from the German. This news caused me to throw furniture around my room, and I'd fear for the translator's safety if she ever went to Hungary. (...) It has been a bestseller in Europe and the US, and it's easy to see why: there's a smidgen of Agatha Christie, a soupçon of Mills and Boon, topped off with graceful prose and a hint of Beckett avant la lettre." - Tibor Fischer, The Guardian

  • "(I)t is pure, self-sufficient and quite unlike anything else you'll find on the shelves." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "(O)ne of the wisest novels I've read in a long time. (...) (T)here is also about Embers, which has been brilliantly translated into English by Carol Janeway, an elemental in its simplicity and it is all the greater for being so." - David Davidar, The Hindu

  • "Readers who love Ishiguro's repressed voices will love Márai's. Possibly some linguistic magic in Embers has been lost in this double translation from Hungarian via German. But it may also be that conveying repression, like boredom, is hard to do." - Lesley Chamberlain, The Independent

  • "Situated beyond the claims of the murderous ideologies of the time, fascism and communism, Marai's novel asserts the primacy of the individual experience, which is always in danger of being swept away." - Thomas McGonigle, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Embers is so rooted in its period as to be quite difficult to appreciate without a thorough understanding of Hungarian history before and during the Second World War. (...) The duplicities and ironies of friendship lie at the heart of Marai's narrative." - Francis Gilbert, New Statesman

  • "In Embers nothing much happens. (...) The novella is really a vehicle for Henrik to ponder aloud the mutations of jealousy and to speak his thoughts on life; it reads like a sometimes clumsy transcription of a stage play." - J.M.Coetzee, The New York Review of Books

  • "The night passes as the general excavates his own soul, brilliantly, foolishly -- it is a triumphant portrait -- while seeking Konrad's, and finding, as dawn breaks, that human love, hate and the passion for answers, all three, grow old and weary." - Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Elegiac, sombre, musical, and gripping, Embers is a brilliant disquisition on friendship, one of the most ambitious in literature. (...) This is an immensely wise book." - Anna Shapiro, The Observer

  • "Gradually, in the General's urbane rendition of these painstakingly linked recollections, Márai (...) fashions an acute edge to his perception of human nature and the modern world. (...) Márai deftly fashions a parable of love, betrayal, and vengeance of great force and subtlety, compelling in its sheer, sustained narrative power." - Michael Pinker, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "In this lunar night of gabble certain facts emerge, or are glimpsed, which may, or may not, account for the fact that the guest hasn’t called in 41 years. By then, having read the lost masterpiece in bed with ’flu in the dark days of January, I frankly couldn’t give a damn." - Byron Rogers, The Spectator

  • "In schnörkellos-altmodischer (...) Sprache versprüht Márai das faulig-üppige Parfum einer untergegangenen Lebensform." - Der Spiegel

  • "Bereits die ersten Seiten machen unmisserverständlich klar, dass man es hier mit einem großen Stilisten und einem erschütternden Werk zu tun hat; einer Art von Literatur, die man -- auch im Erscheinungsjahr 1942 -- längst für verschüttet hielt." - Dante Andrea Franzetti, Der Standard

  • "Carol Brown Janeway's version of it reads with all the evocative power of an outstanding original work (.....) The novel is rich in subtle implications about temperament and infidelity." - Alan Brownjohn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "One may not be able to tell a book by its cover, but the satin-textured jacket of Embers, with its haunting image of a 19th century noblewoman, is sure to seduce readers who might otherwise bypass a translation of an unknown 60-year-old novel." - Bella Stander, Wall Street Journal

  • "(An) expertly mitred narrative. (...) It is as masterly and lovely a novel as one could ask for (.....) Embers is perfect." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Set in a world already at war, first published during the depths of that time (1942), Sándor Márai's novel, Embers, barely acknowledges that present -- at least directly --, looking instead almost entirely to the past. The novel is a swan-song for a time and a world gone by, a final death-knell for the Central Europe of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
       The story is set in the far reaches of Hungary, in a forbidding castle ("a closed world, like a granite mausoleum") in which an old General -- Henrik -- lives, having refused to step into modernity. A visitor has arrived in town, and unsociable and isolated Henrik agrees to see him: it is a meeting he has been waiting for for over forty years. It is clear that something significant happened four decades earlier, when these two men last met: the reader is told that Henrik even remembers the exact day (2 July 1899) and the time that has passed since then (41 years and 43 days). But what exactly happened is not revealed very quickly. Instead, Márai teases the story out.
       The visitor is Henrik's childhood friend, Konrad, and before turning to the present Márai returns to the past: he tells of their youth, when they formed their deep bond at the military academy just outside Vienna to which they are both sent as boys.
       Henrik has already been identified as "the General", so it is clear that he succeeded as a soldier (as his father had before him). Konrad's background turns out to be very different, but even before it is known Henrik's father recognizes that Konrad doesn't have what it takes to be a "true soldier", explaining: "he is a different kind of man". Still, Henrik and Konrad become close friends, a relationship that lasts beyond their school years.
       But, clearly, there was a break at some point. What came between them ? the reader wonders, chapter after chapter. What happened on that "day of the hunt" in 1899 ? Márai's tired formula (of presenting his story is such a manipulative, roundabout way) was surely old hat already in 1942; it hasn't improved with age. Certainly, Márai tells the story quite well: there are evocative descriptions, fairly nice period pieces, and some neat surprises along the way. But it is a hard hand to play well, and it only really pays off close to the end, as additional twists are revealed. In the meantime the novel certainly sags, well into its middle, as the reader grows more and more exasperated with Márai's coy reticence.
       Konrad and Henrik engage in long conversation that evening. They catch up with what each has done in the intervening period, and slowly (and sometimes quite cleverly) Márai reveals new layers that suggest what might have happened between them.
       "Facts are not the truth," the General is only too well aware. "Facts are only part of it", and what he wants, before he dies, is the truth.
       The meeting is like a drawn-out, high stakes chess game. It hardly even seems like a confrontation, with its veneer of cordiality and mannered propriety. The facts, when they are finally all set out, reveal the expected root of conflict -- though with a nice additional twist. The resolution is exactly what one might expect a resolution so long in coming to be, with Márai striking the right note.
       It is the telling that makes (or breaks) this book. The General out of a different time, deeply hurt, long isolated, is a fairly well drawn figure. Few others are of much significance in the text: his nurse, now over ninety, Konrad, the General's father, ... and Krisztina. It is the spirit of the age -- of the lost age, of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire -- that is the strongest presence in the book.
       The General's father was an embodiment of the time, and Henrik and Konrad were still raised in it, in a world where:

Fifty million people found their security in the feeling that their Emperor was in bed every night before midnight and up again before five, sitting by candlelight at his desk in an American rush-bottomed chair, while everyone else who had pledged their loyalty to him was obeying the customs and the laws.
       But that security was soon lost, as the Empire spun apart. Much as Henrik and Konrad's lives broke apart. The Vienna of their youth was the center of this old, secure, beautiful world -- "the tuning fork for the entire world", Konrad even calls it. But that too has changed:
       "And after forty-one years, what did you find ?" the General asks again.
       "A city," says Konrad with a shrug. "Change"
       (This about Vienna in 1940, one should note. To say there has been merely "change" is to greatly understate matters, nicely (if a bit too simply) showing in what a different world these characters live.)

       Márai's novel is often impressive, but far from perfect. Some of the General's monologues are far too long, the roundabout approach of unveiling the secrets is occasionally frustrating, and the tone isn't always on key (though much of this might be attributable to the translation). The loss of the once safe past is reasonably well done, but ultimately Márai does too little with this as well. And the personal loss -- the reasons for the General's odd lifestyle (progressively revealed as odder and odder) -- doesn't seem fully realized. There are many fine small touches (including Konrad's family, the General's mother, details about the General's life), but Márai often doesn't do enough with these either.
       Fairly short, quite brisk, Embers is a fine little read -- but nothing too far out of the ordinary (at least in this English rendering).
       (Note that the English edition of Embers was apparently translated not from the Hungarian in which it was written but from the German translation. Translation is, per se, almost inexcusable, but to translate from a translation is an unpardonable and offensive literary sin. It also might explain why this version reads as it does.)

       The incredible critical acclaim with which the book has been showered in country after country in Europe upon the "rediscovery" of Márai, as well as the popular success of the book (Embers was a bestseller in several countries) are somewhat mystifying. Perhaps -- probably, given that it is based on the German translation, not the original -- there are significant issues with the English translation (we haven't seen the translations in other languages, and the Hungarian original is unfortunately beyond us), but, while certainly a readable story, it is hardly an exceptional one. For tales of the fading Empire read the similarly accessible but far more accomplished Joseph Roth -- or, if you're up for more of a challenge, read Hermann Broch (especially the brilliant The Sleepwalkers (see our review)) or Robert Musil.

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Embers: Reviews: Marai Sandor: Other books by Marai Sandor under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Márai Sándor (1900-1989) was a leading author in Hungary in the 1930s but under the Communists his work fell into utter oblivion. He left Hungary in 1948, first for Italy, then the US, where he eventually committed suicide.

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